Who will be the next U.S. cycling star?

Lance Armstrong is clearly the most recognizable figure American cycling has ever known, a rider who managed to make people in the United States take notice of a sport that previously registered little interest in this country. Tyler Hamilton was the one who was supposed to replace him on cycling's mountaintop.

Two stars exit cycling

Within a few hours earlier this week, Armstrong and Hamilton -- albeit in vastly different ways, for vastly different reasons -- essentially began pedaling their way out of the spotlight. And now USA Cycling is left wondering where its future star power will come from.

"There's some big shoes to fill," Olympic bronze medalist Bobby Julich said.

On Monday, Armstrong announced this year's Tour de France will be his last ride before retirement. Shortly after, Hamilton began serving a two-year doping-related suspension.

There will be appeals in both cases. Armstrong, the six-time defending Tour de France champion, will hear pleas for his return. Hamilton, the 2004 Olympic road time trial gold medalist, will lobby the Court of Arbitration for Sport to overturn what he calls an erroneous test and allow him to race again.

Yet it's seemingly certain that soon, USA Cycling will be without its two biggest drawing cards.

"I don't want to see Lance go, but he's given us an extraordinary career," said Gerard Bisceglia, CEO of USA Cycling. "He's put cycling on page one of sports sections. He's given a lot of other riders the opportunity to show their wares in Europe. But he's left the stage much brighter than when he stepped onto it."

The all-time roster of American superstar cyclists has two names: Armstrong and Greg LeMond, the three-time Tour de France winner. No one else even comes close to their stature.

Strength in numbers

Bisceglia says that for cycling to keep progressing in this country, a single American star doesn't necessarily need to emerge.

Instead, for perhaps the first time, the U.S. has strength in numbers -- or in cycling-speak, a peleton.

"Of course, Lance is the brightest star," Bisceglia said. "But all you have to do is look at the results in Europe last year and this year. ... What you're going to see happening is not one American replacing Lance, but the Americans as a whole will become a fixture of cycling."

Indeed, there seems to be far more American depth than there was a decade or two ago.

Julich has already won two major international races this year. George Hincapie, Armstrong's top lieutenant on what's known now as the Discovery Channel team, was second at the prestigious Paris-Roubaix race this month. Many other young U.S. riders seemed primed for breakthroughs.

And although no one probably wants to see Armstrong retire or Hamilton -- a former Tour de France stage winner and the rider often touted as possibly the next American winner of cycling's greatest race -- lose two years, the situations will create an opportunity for others to reach stardom.

Erin Mirabella won bronze in the points race at the 2004 Olympics and was the only U.S. track rider to get a medal.

Tim Reynolds is a writer for The Associated Press.

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