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Top team makes Tour of Missouri its last hurrah

Monday, September 10, 2007 | 11:57 p.m. CDT; updated 10:57 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

It seems like the last big ride should come on a majestic Alpine pass or on the cobblestones of the Champs-Élysées.

Instead, the team that won the Tour de France eight times in nine years and made Lance Armstrong a folk hero is sending its top stars to a low-key race in Missouri.

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The Discovery Channel team, formerly known as U.S. Postal Service, and best known for helping Armstrong win cycling’s biggest prize a record seven straight times, is disbanding because of a lack of sponsorship.

In its wake, Discovery leaves a legacy of unprecedented performance, some lingering controversy and a major void in the U.S. professional cycling scene.

The sense of finality hasn’t quite hit veteran rider George Hincapie, who joined the team two years before Armstrong’s first Tour de France victory in 1999.

“I thought about it at the Tour (this year) a little bit,” Hincapie said. “I’m sure that next year, when everybody’s riding for a different team, it’ll be strange.”

Discovery has a few more races left on its calendar. But the inaugural Tour of Missouri, which begins Tuesday in Kansas City, is the final time its top riders will compete together.

“It hit me a long time ago,” said fellow American rider Levi Leipheimer. “I would describe it as sad, but I guess nothing lasts forever.”

Team director Johan Bruyneel, who oversaw strategy for all eight tour victories, said his time with the team was rewarding but exhausting.

“It’s the end of a beautiful period in my life,” Bruyneel said. “All good things come to an end. I’m kind of preparing for it a little bit, but until you’re in the heat of the action, you don’t really realize this is it.”

Bruyneel said the team chose to bring its star riders to the Missouri race, instead of the prestigious Spanish Vuelta, where Discovery is fielding some of its lesser-known riders, as a thank-you to American fans.

Hincapie and Leipheimer will be joined by Spanish rider Alberto Contador, the 24-year-old who won the Tour de France in July. And while the riders are exhausted, Discovery is coming to win.

“It’s not going to be a holiday race,” Bruyneel said. “Our guys are performing.”

The Discovery Channel announced in February it would not extend its sponsorship deal with the team beyond this season. The team couldn’t find a new sponsor willing to meet its price.

Armstrong, who remained a part-owner of the team after retiring in 2005, announced in August that the team was halting its sponsorship search and would disband.

“It’s a sad day for cycling. Certainly a sad day for American cycling,” Armstrong said last month. “We’re proud of our record.”

And, no doubt, of the impact it had on U.S. sports fans.

Americans were aware of cycling after Greg LeMond won the Tour de France in 1986, 1989 and 1990. But Armstrong’s story of cancer survival put the brash Texan, and the Tour, front and center in the American sports consciousness.

By the time Armstrong was going for his sixth Tour victory in 2004, yellow “LIVESTRONG” cancer-awareness wristbands were everywhere and L’Alpe d’Huez was the subject of office water-cooler conversations.

“I never imagined that,” Hincapie said. “Even he never imagined it, when the whole wristband thing started.”

But Bruyneel said Armstrong’s first victory, in 1999, was the sweetest.

“We were convinced we could win, but nobody else was,” Bruyneel said. “He became more than an athlete. He survived cancer and won the most difficult sporting event in the world.”

Today, Armstrong is distancing himself from cycling.

“I know that he’s 100 percent focused on the cancer thing right now,” Hincapie said.

Armstrong and the team had more than their share of skeptics, as European reporters frequently tried to connect them with the use of performance-enhancing drugs. The allegations were answered with strong denials, and, in some cases, lawsuits.

Bruyneel describes “enemies” who “really wanted to destroy you.”

After a while, Bruyneel said the constant allegations became just a part of life.

“It’s not something that keeps me up at night,” Bruyneel said. “It’s just part of my daily routine.”

No Discovery rider ever failed a test, though Italian star Ivan Basso had to resign from the team because of his alleged prior involvement in Operation Puerto, the Spanish counterpart to the BALCO investigation in the U.S.

“We had our share of controversies,” Armstrong said last month. “And not one positive test.”

Though Discovery mostly stayed clear of the doping scandals that rocked this year’s Tour, a report linked Contador to the Puerto investigation, but he firmly denied ever doping, the overall hit to cycling’s credibility probably hurt the team’s sponsorship search.

“It’s definitely affected the ability of their story to be useful to a company,” said former professional cyclist Tom Schuler, whose Colavita/Sutter Home team will race against Discovery in Missouri.

Schuler says that while professional cycling is healthier than ever in the U.S., the sport faces major challenges in Europe, where it has a much higher profile and the corporate stakes are much higher.

“No one knows when and how we’re going to get out of this performance-enhancing, drug-induced coma that we’re in,” Schuler said. “Everybody needs to realize that their future is at stake.”

Hincapie called the doping controversies in this year’s tour “shocking,” but said the sport is cleaning up.

“The people who are cheating are getting caught, so that’s a good sign to discourage those who think about it,” Hincapie said.

Hincapie said he will ride for another team next year, but won’t be announcing the move until later this month. Leipheimer said he hasn’t yet found a new team.

Bruyneel is considering an offer from another team, but isn’t going to be a hands-on team director any more. He’s working on a book about his time with Armstrong and the team he calls “the best cycling team ever.”

“It has not been done before,” Bruyneel said of the team’s accomplishments. “And it’s going to be very difficult to repeat our track record.”


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