DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. American cyclist George Hincapie took the yellow jersey today in the Tour de France after two days of racing across northeastern France. He now leads the event by a mere two seconds. Hincapie helped Lance Armstrong win the grueling bicycle race seven years in a row. But after Armstrong's retirement last year, many Americans who once followed the Tour de France are now greeting it with a collective shrug. And as Eric Niiler reports, that means fewer tourist dollars in both French and American pockets.
ERIC NIILER reporting:
For the past few years, tens of thousands of flag waving face-painted American cycling fans hauled their bikes across the Atlantic to root for Lance Armstrong. In 2004, Armstrong demolished the rest of the field at the famous Lealp Duez(ph) hill climb as described here by Outdoor Life network's Phil Ligget.
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Mr. PHIL LIGGET (Sportscaster): The majority of this crowd in the street I'm sure is American and they will welcome the arrival of Lance Armstrong, the king of the Tour de France yet again. Listen to the crowd.
NIILER: Many fans were swept up by Armstrong's athletic skill and back from the dead biography. Not to mention his ex-rock star girlfriend. To bike tour operators like Andrew Lavine(ph), that kind of celebrity meant lots of paying customers.
Mr. ANDREW LAVINE (Bike Tour Operator): I didn't know if people were really that into the tour. They're definitely into Lance. Lance is an amazing story. I man he's a great rider, he's a great person. He's got a great story with cancer, and people really dug it.
NIILER: Lavine is president of Duvine Adventures, a Boston bike touring company. Over the past five years he took hundreds of Americans to France. These fans brought millions of dollars to little French towns and Lavine's company. But this year Lavine's Tour de France bookings are down by half. Same with several other tour operators contacted by NPR. Long Island tour operator Leonard Kaplan says that most American fans already saw Armstrong during his long career as champion.
Mr. LEONARD KAPLAN (Tour Operator): Last year the market was quite slow. This year it's virtually dead.
NIILER: What's worse is that the French organization that owns the race threatened legal action to prevent tour operators from using the words Tour de France to promote their trips. The company wants bike tour operators to pay a $35,000 license fee and ten percent of all their bookings. After getting cease and desist letters several months ago, Kaplan and the others said they scaled back their already bare bones bike trips.
Mr. KAPLAN: The trips that they were running at that point were downsized because of the lack of interest and we just took them off the Internet, waiting to see what happens and the way this whole thing shakes out.
NIILER: Some bike tour operators say they aren't even going to France, instead taking customers to big races in Italy or Spain. Despite the licensing flap, bike industry officials in the U.S. are still counting on the Armstrong afterglow. Mike Bushgo owns a busy bike shop in suburban Silver Springs, Maryland. He says the Lance factor continues to bring in customers.
Mr. MIKE BUSHGO (Bike Shop Owner): My overall road bike sales have been up. They continue to grow, even with the residual effect of Lance leaving.
NIILER: Bushgo is one of the one and a half million fans on Lealp Duez back in 2004. This summer he'll be showing tour videos on a big screen in his store, and he'll be cheering three American riders considered to have a legitimate shot at wearing the winner's yellow jersey three weeks from now in Paris. For NPR News, I'm Eric Niiler.
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