LA ROCHE-SUR-YON, France (VN) — These are not the best of times, but they’re not the worst of times, either. Or at least when it comes to the U.S. presence in the Tour de France peloton.
Five riders across four teams are flying the American flag in this year’s Tour. That’s about average for U.S. representation in cycling’s biggest race.
Lawson Craddock’s opening day crash put that number in peril, but all five toed up to the start line Sunday.
Joining Craddock at EF-Drapac is Taylor Phinney, both back for their second Tour appearances. Chad Haga (Sunweb) and Ian Boswell (Katusha-Alpecin) are making their respective Tour debuts while Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) is the veteran of the pack making his seventh Tour appearance.
“Missing last year’s Tour felt weird,” van Garderen said. “It definitely felt like there was a void in the season. I am glad I am back. I was watching it on TV last year. When you’re in the race you don’t realize how big it is, but when you’re watching it, you realize that this really is the pinnacle of cycling.”
The American presence in the Tour has been fluctuating between three and five riders per edition over the past four years. A record high of 10 came in 2011 (matching the mark set in 1986) and the pack has since settled in between three and five since then.
There are three U.S-registered teams in the peloton — Trek-Segafredo, BMC Racing and Team EF Education First-Drapac — but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a spot for the Tour.
There were a few riders who were on the bubble who didn’t make the cut, including Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing) and Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo).
The new rule allowing only eight starters instead of nine made it an even tighter squeeze for riders trying to punch their ticket to the Tour.
Top teams rarely bring riders to the Tour simply to meet PR obligations or any sense of patriotism. EF-Drapac brought two Americans, but team boss Jonathan Vaughters said the presence of Craddock and Phinney are well-deserved, not some charity pick.
“It’s a team built around protecting Rigo,” Vaughters said. “There are certain guys for the TTT and Roubaix stage and certain guys for the mountains. Taylor and Lawson each have their role to play.”
In the ever more international peloton, Americans rank near the middle of the Tour peloton. There are 30 nations represented this year, and the U.S. is tied with Great Britain, Denmark, and Poland with five starters. France leads the way with 35, followed by Belgium with 19 and the Netherlands with 14.
The U.S. made its Tour debut with Jock Boyer in 1981. The arrival of the 7-Eleven team and Greg LeMond saw a boom in the 1980s, with a record 10 starters in 1986. There was a bit of a lull in the 1990s as the LeMond generation retired and a new one arrived with Lance Armstrong and others. 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.
Riders like Phinney and van Garderen heralded the arrival a new generation, and 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.
That number has since slipped and the future of the American presence in the Tour certainly is far from guaranteed. BMC Racing could be on the rocks and Trek-Segafredo didn’t even bring one American to the Tour this year. Even riders like van Garderen, 29, have a few more years left, but others such as Andrew Talansky have already left the sport.
Riders know it’s a badge of honor to race the Tour. Both Haga and Boswell safely finished their first respective stages Saturday.
“[Friends] are always going to ask that question,” said Haga, who’s raced both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España. “Now I can say, ‘Yes, I’ve raced the Tour.’ So I’ll be more legitimate in the average American eyes.”
All of the Americans in this year’s Tour are riding for someone else. Phinney and Craddock are committed to Urán, while Boswell and Haga are helping Ilnur Zakarin and Tom Dumoulin, respectively. Even van Garderen, who’s twice finished fifth at the Tour, is on domestique duty for Richie Porte.
While there are some promising young Americans waiting in the wings, it looks like it will be awhile before Americans will have someone to cheer for in the battle for the yellow jersey.
American riders in the Tour de France by year
2018 — 5
2017 — 3
2016 — 5
2015 — 3
2014 — 9
2013 — 6
2012 — 8
2011 — 10
2010 — 8
2009 — 7
2008 — 4
2007 — 6
2006 — 8
2005 — 9
2004 — 7
2003 — 6
2002 — 9
2001 — 8
2000 — 9
1999 — 8
1998 — 6
1997 — 6
1996 — 3
1995 — 2
1994 — 3
1993 — 3
1992 — 5
1991 — 5
1990 — 7
1989 — 5
1988 — 6
1987 — 7
1986 — 10
1985 — 2
1984 — 2
1983 — 1
1982 — 1
1981 — 1