USA Cycling’s Steve Johnson looks to a future without Armstrong

In the wake of Lance Armstrong's fall from grace, USA Cycling is figuring out how to keep cycling cool for a new generation of athletes

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (VN) — Arms up, thick chest pressing into a white jersey with rainbow bands. A world champion at the age of 22, smiling, looking into space.

There is but one photo of Lance Armstrong on the wall at USA Cycling’s gleaming new headquarters in Colorado Springs. This is the picture that’s left because it’s one of just a few major results that remains from a once-meteoric career, the only photo it seems the national federation could keep on display.

There used to be more, of course. USAC staff took Lance right off the wall, just like the UCI took Lance right out of the record books, just like the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency took a great deal of the Lance legacy with its exhaustive dossier that linked him to performance-enhancing drugs and blood doping during an unthinkable seven consecutive Tour de France wins.

“Yea. We [also] changed the name of Junior Olympic race series. It’s a painful exercise, frankly. But it’s something that we’re obligated to do based on the general membership’s impressions, and out of respect to everybody else,” Steve Johnson, CEO and president of USA Cycling, told VeloNews.

Johnson didn’t seem happy, or proud, or to be making a point, as if to declare the organization stripped Armstrong’s place on the wall. It seemed like he was just stating a fact.

“He’s why a lot of people have a job … all of us have been the result of growth of cycling in America, and the opportunities it’s created. The entire industry’s benefited from it. Bicycle sales. You can’t deny it, so let’s not. Let’s all go forward,” Johnson said during a long interview, drinking a coffee out of a USA Cycling mug, looking out the window into a long Colorado afternoon, dulled by haze and heat.

Johnson points out that it isn’t only USA Cycling that’s tethered to the Armstrong years, but also the publications — including this one — the sponsors, the bike manufactures …

“It’s the entire cycling industry,” he said. “It’s VeloNews. It’s Cyclingnews. It’s everybody who got pulled along by that vortex of the Lance Armstrong story. And nobody has to apologize for that. It just happened. And if you don’t appreciate it, it’s like denying history, and that’s ridiculous. You don’t even want to go there.

“I think the question we all have to deal with now is, what do we do next? It’s clear to me that heroes and role models are absolutely critical to the continued development and interest in the sport of cycling. So, for us as an organization, 100 percent of our effort outside of supporting recreational racing goes into the support of developing and supporting this next generation of heroes and role models, and making sure every talented, potentially qualified American cyclist gets a chance at a top-level professional opportunity.”

Heroes and role models. That’s a notion worthy of distinction. It’s always the heroes that have the farthest to fall (and a chunk of them in cycling inevitably plummet, at least lately) and yet it’s those titans Johnson believes draw people to their bikes in America.

“We’ve all lived through the last decade and seen the explosive growth of the sport as people became aware of it. And I maintain, and absolutely believe, and it’s based on a lot of good research, that the reason cycling has experienced the growth phase it has is because it’s become more relevant. There’s more cachet associated with it. Americans are strange animals. They need heroes, role models. They appreciate things that have cachet. No one’s going to ride a bike because it’s good for them. They’re going to ride a bike because it’s cool. And cycling’s cool. And that’s great. I think it’s incumbent upon us to take advantage of the opportunity.”

Asked, point blank, if the federation knew about Armstrong’s cheating (which was largely team wide, beginning with the U.S. Postal squad partially owned by Johnson’s former masters teammate Thomas Weisel) Johnson shakes his head and says “absolutely not.”

“Since 2000 in our country, USADA’s had complete and ultimate purview over anti-doping activities,” he said. “Before that, it was Olympic movement testing. The United States Olympic Committee actually managed it; results went to national federations … there was plenty of opportunity in that environment for things to disappear. I’m not saying they did, but that old analogy of the fox guarding the henhouse that [USADA CEO] Travis [Tygart] uses all the time, I think it’s appropriate.”

Johnson says he’s thankful results management doesn’t fall to him, and also that it’s the dual role of cycling’s world governing body, the UCI, that presents problems: It’s tasked with growing the sport but also drug control. Good cop, bad cop.

“I want police to be separate,” he said.

Johnson has sat atop USAC since 2006. He started with the organization in 1999, working on the performance side — he holds a doctorate in exercise physiology — and was named the COO in 2000, the same year, according to the USAC website, he created the USA Cycling Development Foundation, the main fundraising wing of USAC.

Johnson’s seen the rise of the organization, the best of times, and more recently the worst of times, at least from a public relations standpoint. There was, and is, an undeniable link between a star athlete and the national federation he or she rides or plays for. Asked if the perception of USA Cycling has suffered after the USADA file dropped, Johnson said he wasn’t sure.

“Opinion-wise, I don’t know. I can’t read minds, obviously. But I’m sure the two were closely tied. And connected, in terms of people’s perceptions. He came out of our program, he was a representative of the sport, nationally and internationally. So I would assume so,” he said.

If the cycling public is discontented, it hasn’t shown it until very recently, and only through donations this past year. Racing licenses have risen steadily in the last 10 years, though they’re down slightly this year, according to Johnson. There’s a percent decline on the road, but an increase in mountain bike license holders.

In 2012, there were 74,516 license holders, with the join road/track/cyclocross category making up the largest chunk, at nearly 47,000. Mountain bike racers accounted for 15,000.

In 2002, at some of the greatest heights the Armstrong sensation, there were 42,724 racing members. It’s not like people stopped racing their bikes. In fact, numbers have gone up every year since then, though the largest increases on a percentage basis came in 2004 and 2005, with increases of more than 10 percent over the year prior. 2011 saw little growth in USAC members — a meager 1.5 percent increase over 2010 — but 2012 showed better, five percent up over 2011.

But the money, that’s to say outright contributions without getting a racing license in return, tells a different story, though only recently. Online giving this year to date over last is down 40 percent, and the foundation didn’t meet its goals last year, either, though it raised $1.1 million, according to Bill Kellick, USAC’s director of communications.

Donations have largely held steady since 2001, at an average of roughly $1 million annually. Some years (2006, 2008, and 2010) saw more garnered, though that was due to the sale of private equities donated to the foundation, and wouldn’t directly be attributed to Armstrong’s prominence, Kellick said. Armstrong was retired two of those three years.

USAC’s largest challenge is funding. The organization has an operating budget of $14 million, of which $4 million goes into its athletic programs, or elite-level riders, development programs, etc., according to Johnson. It’s pushing money and energy into its development programs, looking for the next star, and has even launched a new European base for young riders.

“We get no money from the government. I get seven percent of my budget from the U.S. Olympic Committee. The rest I have to raise through business operations, philanthropic donations, and sponsorship. We’re really resource limited, so we have to be very careful what we do with our money. How we spend it,” Johnson says. “You don’t build a program based on a single resource stream, because if that goes away, the program goes away. We try to build really robust business models with multiple revenue streams to support what we do.”

Johnson sees a bright future, but he reflects on the past openly.

“I think we’ve identified some opportunities, if you will, and clearly, we think this new emerging generation is one, and we’re going to focus heavily on that … all these young kids coming into the sport now at the top level have come through that pretty robust, European-based racing opportunity,” he said. “With regard to the Armstrong case in general, everybody feels a little bit violated, I think it’s safe to say, with what was professed to be the truth, and then what ultimately turned out to apparently be the truth. So — but you can’t rewind any of that.”

That much is certainly true, no matter what the record books say.