ST. LOUIS — Two months after cycling’s latest rash of doping scandals, the Tour of Missouri played to huge, enthusiastic throngs last week.
It’s proof, cycling officials say, that those who have sounded the death knell for the sport after repeated Tour de France woes went a bit overboard. Thousands of fans lined the streets of St. Louis on Sunday for the final day of the inaugural six-stage race, a scene that had been repeated across the state.
“You’re just glad to be in the game, and when you see a home run like this in the first year, it takes your breath away,” said Sean Petty, chief operating officer for USA Cycling. “We’ve taken a lot of hits lately in the sport and a lot of pre-emptive calls for the end of cycling.
“I got choked up with the initial reception in Kansas City, and every day since we left Kansas City the crowds were stunning.”
Participants were grateful to the fans.
George Hincapie, who won the individual title in the last U.S. race by juggernaut team Discovery Channel before disbanding, was struck by the sea of humanity that greeted riders as they began the final downhill sprint home in Sunday’s concluding 74-mile circuit race in downtown St. Louis.
It was nothing like this year’s Tour de France, marred by the doping-related dismissal of leader Michael Rasmussen and the absence of 2006 champion Floyd Landis because of doping charges still hanging over his head.
“You can kind of see straight down to the finish and all you can see is people,” Hincapie said. “It was really cool to be a part of that.”
The turnout in other Missouri cities also was impressive.
“Really, the whole week the crowd has been super enthusiastic, always ‘Thanks for coming to Missouri,’ and guys aren’t used to that,” Hincapie said.
Overall runner-up William Frischkorn of Team Slipstream-Chipotle, expected to succeed Discovery Channel as the dominant U.S. cycling team, said every day was a pleasant surprise. Team Slipstream finished ahead of Discovery Channel for the team title.
“The roads have been beautiful, and the crowds have been huge,” Frischkorn said. “Hopefully we can come back next year and many years to come.”
Missouri’s hope is to be part of an annual U.S. triple crown in cycling, along with races in Georgia and California. Gov. Matt Blunt became a huge supporter after one particularly persuasive letter from a friend in southwest Missouri, giving Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder free reign, and plenty of corporate sponsors followed.
“Pretty quickly we decided this was something we wanted to embrace,” Blunt said.
The final day was successful despite tough competition for the attention of sports fans. The start-finish line outside Union Station was blocks away from both a Cubs-Cardinals game and a 49ers-Rams game, which together drew 110,000 fans. Also, the Blues played their first preseason game about an hour after the race ended.
“The most impressive thing to me is this is another lesson in ’We don’t know how great we can be in Missouri,’” Kinder said. “I think St. Louis has shown before that it can walk and chew gum at the same time.
“I think we pulled it off.”
Petty of USA Cycling said none of it should come as a surprise, pointing out steady growth in the sport the last five years and record membership this year with 2,400 sanctioned events held around the country. Petty believes the success of the Tour of Georgia opened the door for California, which in turn opened the door for Missouri.
Petty even sees a positive in Discovery’s disbanding.
“All of this turmoil we’re going through now is great for American cyclists,” he said. “Our riders are as talented as anyone on the planet. And as the sport continues to clean itself up, we’re going to see more and more riders at the front of the field in Europe.
“We’re making the effort, and we’re going to get there.”