With the news this past summer that the 2010 Tour de France would be Lance Armstrong's last ride in cycling's greatest race, the search is now on to find an American who can step into the shoes of the seven-time champion.
Let's be honest. It is not likely in the near future that we will see another American dominate Le Grande Boucle as Armstrong did. However, it would be nice to have someone from the U.S. capable of contending for the podium who we can root for next July. The 2011 edition of the Tour will probably be more of the Alberto and Andy show as Contador and Schleck resume their battle for supremacy, but it would be great if an American rider could be part of the mix.
I don't think we Americans have it as bad as the French who haven't had a winner in their national Tour since 1985. That's a whole generation of Frenchman who have missed out on having a victory of their own at the Tour. In contrast, with Armstrong's seven victories and Greg Lemond's three, that's ten wins in the past 25 years for the Stars and Stripes. Not bad.
So who is capable of challenging for the yellow jersey? Some of America's best and most popular hopes are getting a bit long in the tooth. Levi Leipheimer, who was third to Alberto Contador in 2007, will be 37 years old next season. He has a strong team in Radio Shack, but will he be capable of riding at the level necessary to stand on the podium once again?
Sentimental favorite George Hincapie will also be 37 years old in 2011. This year he started his fifteenth Tour de France. He has finished every one except for his first in 1996 when USA Cycling officials convinced him to drop out midway through the race so he could rest up for the Atlanta Olympics where he was considered a contender for a medal. If George does start a record-tying sixteenth Tour next year he will most likely be riding in support of teammate Cadel Evans so he will not be contending for a high overall placing for himself.
After a stunning fourth place finish in the 2008 Tour de France, Christian Vande Velde has had a run of bad luck that has put a damper on his preparation for both the 2009 and 2010 Tours and he has been unable to repeat or improve on his 2008 finish. Christian will be 35 years old in 2011 which is right at the cusp of his prime years, but he is a fighter and you can never count him out.
Dave Zabriskie has shown well in the Tour of California stage race with three podium finishes, but he has yet to put it all together in July in France and will probably be riding support for his Garmin-Transitions teammate Vande Velde.
Tom Danielson has yet to ride the Tour, but has shown some potential in the Vuelta a Espana three-week grand tour. While he is in his early 30's, it is probably too much to ask Danielson to ride to a high placing in his first Tour if he does get to ride next July. Maybe after he puts several years of experience under his belt he can contend, but not right away.
Of the young American cyclists, the rider with the brightest future is Tejay Van Garderen. At the ripe age of 21 he has already come third in the Criterium du Dauphine and second in the Tour of Turkey, both week-long stage races. He is riding his first ever grand tour, the Vuelta a Espana, this season and if all goes well, he might get a start in the Tour in 2011. Like a fine wine, Van Garderen will only improve with age.
Many people are looking to another young rider, Taylor Phinney, to shine in France. Like Van Garderen, Phinney is quite young at only 20 years old. Taylor has shown that he is most effective in tough, one-day races and though he has won several multi-day races it is not clear that his climbing ability will be able to match his time-trialing prowess.
Can an American step up and fill the big shoes left by Lance Amstrong's retirement from the Tour? There are riders on both ends of their careers who appear to be capable, but we'll have to wait until July 2011 to find out.
Bruce Hildenbrand is a freelance journalist covering cycling and a host of other outdoor-related sports. Find the latest news, rumors and more on his Active Expert blog. He splits his time between Mountain View, California, Boulder, Colorado, and Europe.