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Tour de France

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The Bicycle Boom

American cyclist Greg LeMond, who began cycling as a means of off-season ski conditioning, is best known for his racing in the grueling Tour de France, which he won in 1986, 1989, and 1990. He was the first American to win the race. His 1989 victory was by only eight seconds, the closest margin in the history of the Tour.

In the United States, where bicycle design essentially stagnated for the first half of the 20th century, the popularity of adult bicycling began a resurgence with the publicity surrounding President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first heart attack in 1955. Paul Dudley White, a Boston heart specialist called as a consultant, recommended bicycling as a therapeutic activity for coronary patients and those at high risk of coronary disease.

The Kennedy administration’s emphasis on nationwide programs to promote physical fitness also encouraged bicycling. Between 1960 and 1966 annual bicycle sales in the United States increased from 3.8 million to 6 million. American buyers now turned in large numbers to the sophisticated offerings of European developers (and later, Japanese manufacturers), who had made bicycles more attractive and easier to ride by radically reducing their weight and adding gears to help with climbing hills. Compared to the 23 to 27 kg (50 to 60 lb) typical for the one-speed balloon-tire bicycle of the 1930s and 1940s, the three-speed English racer averaged only 20 kg (45 lb), and the derailleur ten-speed weighed under 16 kg (35 lb).

As a result of the energy crisis of the 1970s, when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) raised the price of petroleum sharply, and in part because of a heightened environmental awareness, alternatives to costly automobile transportation were once again popular. Using a bicycle for errands and commuting as well as for recreation boosted interest in cycling in the United States. Interest in bicycle commuting waned in the early 1980s, however, after OPEC fell into disarray, oil prices declined, and fuel-efficient automobiles came onto the market.

Meanwhile, in the late 1970s in Marin County, California, several bicycle designers (including Gary Fisher and Otis Guy) were experimenting with adding triple cranks, 26-inch wheels, and wide, low-pressure tires to touring frames to create the all-terrain bicycle (ATB), or mountain bicycle. This vehicle could plow through mud and sand, climb rocky tracks, and jump tree stumps; it enabled cyclists to explore backwoods trails hitherto accessible only to hikers or horseback riders.

American cyclist Lance Armstrong grins as he coasts to his second straight Tour de France title. Armstrong battled back from testicular cancer to win the race six times in a row from 1999 to 2004, a Tour de France record.

In the early and mid-1980s the mountain bike single-handedly gave the U.S. bicycle industry a boost, as it was also popular in urban areas as a city bike or commuter bike for riding over city streets with their potholes and sewer grates. The combination of low gears, wide tires, and a short-wheelbase racing frame also made the mountain bike lively and nimble, giving rise to the sport of mountain-bike racing at so-called fat-tire festivals.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s a combination of the mountain bike and the touring bike resulted in the hybrid bike, popular among experienced commuting and touring cyclists as well as with novice riders.

The increasing popularity of bicycles during the 1980s and 1990s led to the introduction of organized tours. Many of these tours cover large distances within and across states, run from three to eight days in length, and have hundreds and even thousands of riders who participate. RAGBRAI (Register Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa), for example, has attracted as many as 23,000 people. Touring companies that offer recreational and vacation bicycle tours in many areas of the country have multiplied as well.

Bicycle fundraising events have also become popular and have attracted thousands of people across the country during the past few decades. Many nonprofit organizations use them to raise funds, educate the public, and increase awareness of their efforts.

The success of American cyclists in international competitions, particularly the Tour de France, has also fostered the resurgence of bicycling in the United States. The Tour de France is considered the premier stage race in cycling, and Greg LeMond became the first American to win that race in 1986. He won again in 1989 after overcoming a near fatal hunting accident, and then again in 1990. Lance Armstrong became the second American to win the Tour de France, in 1999, after overcoming cancer; he repeated as champion in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004 to set the record for most wins. Through their victories, LeMond, Armstrong, and other American cycling champions have contributed greatly to an increase in the popularity of bicycles in the United States. See also Cycling.