DAHLONEGA, Ga. – When Lance Armstrong retired nine months ago, Discovery Channel team manager Johan Bruyneel said nobody could replace his superstar cyclist. Now the seven-time Tour de France winner wants to prove Bruyneel wrong.
Armstrong and Discovery will launch a "Race to Replace" campaign that seeks to identify an American cyclist who might fill some of the void.
It's a tricky proposition that has no immediate timetable. Bruised egos are at stake for a team that has no Steve Young capable of taking the spot formerly held by Discovery's version of Joe Montana.
One approach will call on the general public, which seems unorthodox and perhaps not so far-fetched when you consider Armstrong was a teenage triathlete before becoming a cyclist.
Armstrong and Discovery are hosting a "Race to Replace" event on Aug. 12, nearly three weeks after the Tour de France ends, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The event allows experienced and novice amateur cyclists a chance, with Armstrong on site, to ride their bikes on the renowned speedway. Plans call for one eligible entrant to win the Brickyard event and compete with the team at the USA Cycling Pro Championships, Sept. 1-3, in Greenville, S.C.
"The Race to Replace is going to be an exhilarating opportunity to really rally thousands of cycling enthusiasts of all ages and to have a personal stake in the selection of the Discovery Channel pro cycling team's next leader," Armstrong wrote in an e-mail Friday to The Associated Press.
"Can you imagine the thrill to ride on the legendary Indianapolis speedway with other avid fans, trying out to win a spot on the team for the U.S. championships? That's pretty cool. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a lucky fan to actually ride with the team."
Funds raised will benefit the foundation of Armstrong, a cancer survivor who raises money and awareness to fight the disease. Armstrong compares the experience of competing with the Discovery team at the USA Cycling event to being "a Yankees fan playing shortstop" in a real game.
"A dream come true, and I get to hone my acting skills a bit in the marketing and advertising campaign in support of the race," Armstrong wrote. "If fans want to get insight about the pros vying for the lead position, they can watch webisodes on racetoreplace.com to see great stories about the top seven riders."
Looking at the current Discovery lineup, the team doesn't anticipate one of its current Americans winning the Tour de France.
Tom Danielson, who began Friday as the No. 2 overall leader and the defending champion at the Tour de Georgia, will leave the event to begin preparing for Giro d'Italia. Competing in the three-week Italian race will keep Danielson, a 28-year-old Coloradan, from participating in the Tour de France.
George Hincapie, the only rider to compete in each of Armstrong's Tour de France victories, is probably better suited to play a support role. Furthermore, Hincapie, a 34-year-old South Carolina resident, is currently nursing injuries from a Paris-Robiax crash that kept him from entering the Tour de Georgia.
Jason McCartney, who won in San Francisco last year, helped Discovery's Paolo Savoldelli take the general classification title at the 2005 Giro d'Italia. The 28-year-old McCartney grew up in Iowa, but he has yet to win a major European race.
Discovery's best chance to win the world's top cycling race might come from Yaroslav Popovych, a 26-year-old Ukranian who was selected the best young participant at last year's Tour de France.
Armstrong rode in the Discovery car with Bruyneel during the second stage of the Tour de Georgia, which Popovych won by 5.3 seconds. As much as Armstrong wants the team's foreign cyclists to succeed, however, he acknowledges the need for an American to assume his former role.
After his final victory ride down the Champs-Elysées last July, Armstrong stated that making an American his successor was "the only way I think it crosses over to the big-time press and the networks."
Seeing how a considerably lower number of fans are watching the Tour de Georgia after his drive from Fayetteville to Rome, Armstrong knows the sport's popularity is precarious.
"We have to make the best of the situation," Armstrong said, "but I'm confident we'll do what's necessary to keep cycling at the forefront of the American sports landscape."