Doping scandals. Skittish sponsors. Canceled races.
Life after Lance Armstrong has been anything but smooth for pro cycling, which this time of year is normally celebrating the annual Tour de France. Instead, the sport is struggling to preserve its public relevance, financial footing and athletic integrity amid increasing allegations of a rampant culture of cheating.
So what in the name of Floyd Landis is the Show-Me State doing rolling out the red carpet — not to mention more than $1 million of taxpayer money — for the inaugural Tour of Missouri, a six-day, 600-mile stage race that will bring some of the world’s top riders here in mid-September?
For Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, the answer is simple: a global marketing bonanza the likes of which Missourians have never seen. “This is the greatest opportunity we have ever had to brand Missouri to a national and international audience,” said Kinder, who is also chairman of the Missouri Tourism Commission.
The Tour of Missouri is scheduled to start in Kansas City on Sept. 11 and conclude in St. Louis five days later, with stops in Clinton, Springfield, Branson, Lebanon, Columbia, Jefferson City and St. Charles.
The tour joins similar high-profile races in Georgia, where this year’s event drew 600,000 spectators, and California, where 1.2 million fans gathered.
A Georgia-based company that manages both the California and Georgia events is handling the Missouri race.
“We did not want to wake up and see in the newspaper that Wisconsin was doing this, or Iowa, or, God forbid, Kansas,” Kinder said.
A steady succession of doping controversies has cycling corporate benefactors running scared.
Less than two months before the start, race organizers have yet to attract a title sponsor, though such Missouri businesses as Monsanto, financial adviser Edward Jones and Drury Hotels have signed on in lesser roles. Efforts continue to recruit a sponsor whose name can be attached to the race, Kinder said. But he assured that even without a last-minute infusion of corporate cash to help offset the event’s $2.8 million budget, the race is on.
Missouri’s strong organizing efforts have caught the pro cycling community’s attention, said Sean Weide, a spokesman for the Toyota-United team, which recently committed to the Missouri race. Weide emphasized the importance of the tour’s strong support from state government, which will help oversee details ranging from highway closings to emergency medical needs.
But he also acknowledged that the taint of performance-enhancing drug use has made pro cycling a harder sell among the U.S. masses.
“The perception of the mainstream public is that cycling is rampant with doping,” he said. “That’s certainly a hurdle to overcome.”