With just four confirmed starters, the American presence at this year’s Tour de France won’t be setting any records.
In fact, the number confirms a flat trend in American Tour participation, and speaks to the diminished role U.S. riders now play in cycling’s most important stage race. Over the past five editions, the U.S. has fielded between three and five riders at the Tour de France.
Earning start this year are Ben King (Dimension Data), Chad Haga (Sunweb), Tejay van Garderen (EF Education First) and Tour debutant Joey Rosskopf (CCC). Two Canadians — Michael Woods (EF Education First) and Hugo Houle (Astana) — also start Saturday in Brussels.
For each of these riders, a Tour start marks a high point—the Tour is often the only race that resonates with acquaintances back home.
“I finally got the call that I’ve been waiting for,” said King, back for his second Tour start. “For many Americans the Tour is the only race that they know so it’s a huge deal. I can finally tell everyone who asks every year, ‘Yes, I’ll be there.’”
No more than five Americans has started the Tour since 2014, when nine U.S. riders took the start. A high-water mark of 10 came in 2011 — matching the best mark set in 1986 — and the pack has since settled in between three and five ever since.
What’s behind the smaller numbers? A few things. First off, the reduction of Tour rosters from nine to eight starters in 2018 eliminated 22 total spots from the Tour—22 opportunities for one more American rider to start. This year there are 19 U.S. riders competing in the WorldTour, and despite the presence of three U.S.-registered team in the WorldTour — EF Education First, CCC Team and Trek-Segafredo — the hyper-competitive peloton means a rider’s passport is no guaranteed ticket for cycling’s most competitive race.
Also this year, there were a few riders on the bubble who were not selected, including Taylor Phinney and Lawson Craddock (both EF Education First). And seven U.S. riders raced in the Giro d’Italia in May; these riders required rest after the punishing three-week race across Italy. Only Haga, who won the final stage in Verona, is racing the Tour after completing the Italian grand tour.
American participation waned in the early 1990’s as the LeMond generation retired, and a new one arrived. The U.S. Postal Service put the U.S. back in the peloton, but a string of high-profile doping scandals marred that generation’s legacy. From 1997 to 2014, there were at least six Americans racing every July (with an exception of four in 2008). In 2011, the number hit 10, matching the all-time record in 1986 during the 7-Eleven/LeMond era.
One major distinction from today’s generation of U.S. riders is that there is not a clear American GC candidate. LeMond was the first American to win the Tour — and is now the only official U.S. winner — that heralded in a new generation of GC riders. Though many were later marred in doping scandals, riders such Lance Armstrong, Tyler Hamilton, Levi Leipheimer, Floyd Landis and Bobby Julich battled for the GC, bringing the chase for the yellow jersey to American fans for a decade.
That’s no longer the case. All four Americans in this year’s Tour will play support roles for their respective teams. All four are talented time trialists who will provide big power for the stage 2 team time trial in Belgium.
Van Garderen, who’s twice finished fifth overall, slots in as credible backup plan behind GC threat Rigoberto Uran on EF Education First. Van Garderen was second overall at the Critérium du Dauphiné, a result that speaks to his strong form for the Tour.
Haga, Rosskopf and King will also see chances to ride into breakaways.
“The Tour is the one race that transcends cycling. Without the Tour de France, cycling would be an obscure sport. The Tour puts cycling in front of the world,” van Garderen said this week. “The everyday person knows about this race. As a kid, it was the only race in the U.S. that was ever on TV. Growing up, I had no idea what Liège was, no idea what Dauphiné was, but I knew the Tour. That holds true for most people. Naturally then, we all want to perform at the highest level on the biggest stage, and I think I’m well-positioned to do that, and so is the team.”
Even with just four starters, the U.S. brings the same number of starters as Colombia, Austria and Switzerland. In fact, the U.S. slots in as a decidedly middle-of-the-pack nation when it comes to Tour starts.
There are 30 countries represented in this year’s Tour, with France leading the way with 34. Belgium is second with 21, but as the peloton becomes more international, even traditional hotbeds such as Italy and Spain are seeing their numbers diminished, with 15 and 13 starters respectively.