I was at a friend’s house recently when I spotted it. An old Wheaties cereal box on display in the kitchen. The orange box had faded edges. Its heavy, whole grain contents long past the expiration date. The reason it had been saved for so long —23 years and counting, in fact— is because it’s become a bit of a collector’s item. The box’s chosen champion, wearing the yellow Tour de France jersey and depicted in blurred motion, is Lance Armstrong.
To support its famous “Breakfast of Champions” slogan, General Mills has been featuring American athletes on the Wheaties packaging since 1937. And over the years, this tradition has become a bit of an indicator of an athlete’s stature in American culture. The likes of Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Michael Phelps, Simone Biles and Serena Williams have all been featured.
In 1999, after winning his first Tour de France yellow jersey, Armstrong was the first, and ‘till this day the only, American cyclist to grace the cereal box packaging. He would of course be stripped of this achievement along with all his other Tour de France wins in 2012, but the Wheaties box and, alarmingly, the cereal lives on.
(Only Irish cyclist Alan McCormack preceded Armstrong when he rode for the Wheaties-Schwinn team in the 1980s and appeared on the cereal box to showcase the team.)
Since Armstrong’s infamous Oprah Winfrey interview in 2013 that disgraced the American hero forever, road cycling has been on a steady decline in the United States.
Participation at amateur and elite events across the country are dwindling, and international races like the Colorado Classic, the Tour of California and the Tour of Utah have all folded due to lack of financial support.
Only four UCI races remain and they barely reach beyond the local newspapers, let alone offer enough incentive for international stars to come and cross the waters. And without a superhero to get behind, American sports fans pay little attention to what happens abroad, even if young American talent is netting stage wins.
It seems that for cycling another Wheaties moment is a long way off. Or is it?
In search of a Wheaties Box Moment
Back in 2017 when the interest in gravel riding was really taking off, the hashtag #roadisdead started trending, and the bike industry was sitting on thousands of unsold rim brake road bikes, the then-President of USA Cycling, Derek Bouchard-Hall, told us not to panic.
“Road is absolutely not dead,” he told me at the time. “It’s going through a midlife crisis.”
It’s cyclical, he explained. Cycling saw a boom in the 1980s and again in the early aughts. It would surely come again. And it did, to an extent. In 2020, the Covid pandemic led to a bicycle boom, just not the road racing kind.
What the racing fad of the 1980s and the early aughts have in common is an American cycling hero. First it was Greg LeMond and then Armstrong. Villain or not, no one can dispute that Armstrong’s victories and cancer story made him a household name — so much so that it was his image you were looking at as you poured your morning cereal into a bowl.
After Armstrong’s retirement in 2005 the question became, who’s next? And it’s the question we’re still asking today though there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon.
“I’m optimistic. The industry is cyclical and road [cycling] has been in the hurt locker for quite a while,” USA Cycling’s current CEO tells Cycling Weekly. “We’re seeing the strongest U.S. men’s presence in Europe in 15-18 years.”
Indeed, the latest crop of American WorldTour riders like Joe Dombrowski (Astana Qazaqstan Team), Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo), Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma), Brandon McNulty (UAE TEam Emirates) and Neilson Powless (EF Education-Easypost) are demonstrating that Americans not only belong in the WorldTour circuit, they have the potential to win even the biggest races.
Kuss soloed to a mountain top stage win in the 2021 Tour de France and has shown heaps of promise. A the same time, McNulty has played a critical role for Slovenian star Tadej Pogačar in the mountains for several Grand Tours now, and then there’s Powless, who narrowly missed out on the Maillot Jaune on stage 5 of this year’s Tour, and gave American fans everywhere a reason to get up at the crack of dawn to turn on the T.V.
“We — USA Cycling— exist to grow the sport of bike racing across the U.S. And for us, two things have proven to grow the sport of bike racing. One, heroic riders like Neilson [Powless]…Neilson is the future of American bike racing. American fans were all shouting at their TVs this summer as he was fighting for the yellow jersey at the Tour de France,” says Quirk.
Of course, since Armstrong’s disgrace, the U.S. has seen some incredible female cycling stars with the likes of three-time gold Olympic medalist Kristin Armstrong; climber Mara Abbott who became the first American to win Italy’s Grand Tour, the Giro Rosa; and Coryn Labecki who, in 2017, made history by becoming the first American, man or woman, to win the Tour of Flanders — just to name a few.
“Our women have long been our strongest asset,” Quirk agreed. “But unfortunately these athletes have not been getting the public attention they deserve, though that is changing, ” Quirk says.
Hence no Wheaties box…yet!
The other thing that promotes growth is international races on U.S. soil. The inaugural Maryland Cycling Classic, won by Belgian Sep VanMarcke (Israel-Premier Tech), in August serves exactly that purpose.
It was one of just four UCI races in the U.S. in 2022 and the highest ranked one at that, carrying a UCI Class 1 ProSeries status.
It was also the first time the U.S. had hosted an international world-class field since the 2019 Amgen Tour of California, a multi-day WorldTour race that was last won by Tadej Pogačar.
Quirk called it the “most important bike race that’s happened in America in the last five years,” and hopes it will reignite some of America’s cycling fandom.
Domestically, there are small signs of the pendulum swinging in cycling’s favor as well.
“When I look to local associations in American cities, I see growth and momentum, says Quirk.
Quirk explains that at USA Cycling success is measured in two ways: membership and the number of USA Cycling-sanctioned race days.
“Road has been on a steady decline since 2013, but —not looking at the Covid years— we’re actually seeing growth in membership and we’re hitting our forecasted numbers in terms of race days,” he says.
Initiatives like the L39ion of Los Angeles and their influence in the crit scene are another step in the right direction.
“L39ion is doing a fabulous job to make cycling resonate in new communities. [Team owners] Justin and Corey [Williams] want to produce superheroes and we support that. Americans love their superheroes,” says Quirk.
“We’ve absolutely got potential heroes. In time they’re going to win a Spring Classic, the yellow jersey [at the Tour de France].”
For USA Cycling, the task before them now is looking for new pathways to get participants who are flocked to gravel and Gran Fondo events into “more traditional racing.”
This is, of course, with an eye on the governing body’s rather ambitious goals for the coming six years. In June the federation announced that it’s set a goal of 7 to 10 medals at the Paris Olympics in 2024 and another 12-15 medals at the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028, with world championship podiums along the way.
“A yellow jersey at the Tour de France, the world championships, the Olympics — they transcend everything,” Quirk says.
“An American on the top step of those podiums, that will be our Wheaties Box moment.”