Mon, Jul 25, 2011 | by Des Moines RegisterShare
On Iowa roads and atop a bicycle, Lance Armstrong remains a titan.
In the rest of the world, the celebrity of the seven-time Tour de France champion and cancer survivor has faded, say people who study such things.
It’s been six years since his last Tour victory and two years since he competed. There’s controversy from a string of unproved doping allegations during his competitive peak.
But when Armstrong returns today — to advocate for cancer research and ride part of the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa — he will still be a superstar to fellow cyclists.
“Lance Armstrong is an American hero,” said Steve Isaacson, a Chicago man who has ridden RAGBRAI for 15 years. “He stands for everything that is great about the sport of biking.”
Still, the shelf life of American fame may be somewhat greater than the 15 minutes envisioned by pop artist Andy Warhol, there is definitely an expiration date — especially for sports stars.
Starting in Carroll this morning, Armstrong will be making his fourth visit to RAGBRAI, his first since 2008. He is one of the great champions in his sport, but cycling is not pro football or college basketball in the hearts and minds of American sports fans.
Armstrong remains an icon to cyclists, but his celebrity has lessened, said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of television and popular culture.
“An actor who starred in a sitcom that reruns forever on cable will always have longer lasting fame than a sports star,” Thompson said. “With a few exceptions — Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan — the farther they are away from their peak, the less people remember them. There aren’t reruns in sports. We watch them live, and that’s it.”
More than 90 percent of U.S. consumers found Armstrong appealing in June 2009, after he finished third in the Tour de France, according to the Marketing Arm, a Dallas firm that measures celebrity status. By May this year, after another round of doping accusations, Armstrong’s appeal dropped to 76 percent.
“That’s a significant decline,” said Chris Anderson, Marketing Arm communications director. “Allegations and rumors keep surfacing and most people tend to believe where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
Still, Armstrong’s Iowa fans stand by him.
“I want to believe him,” said Forrest Ridgway, owner of Bike World, a Des Moines bicycle and equipment shop. “I’m not going to judge him. He says he’s innocent. It’s got to be that way unless it’s proven otherwise.”
Ridgway repaired several of the Armstrong Livestrong team bikes during the cyclist’s last ride through Iowa. Armstrong expressed deep affection for RAGBRAI.
“I think he comes here just because he thinks it’s fun,” Ridgway said. “He enjoys the camaraderie on the ride and the people and the spirit of the whole thing. He feels very at home here.
One area where Armstrong’s name still carries weight is cancer survivor advocacy. The Lance Armstrong Foundation introduced the Livestrong yellow silicone bracelets for $1 each to benefit cancer survivors.
The foundation has raised more than $400 million for cancer survivor advocacy. (His schedule today begins with a meeting with lawmakers about cancer efforts.) He is so respected as a fundraiser that the American Cancer Society, which often competes with Armstrong’s foundation for charitable donations, has teamed up with him for joint events.
“Lance Armstrong is probably the most famous cancer survivor in the world today,” said Charles Reed, American Cancer Society of Iowa spokesman. “His passion, energy, and personification of the hopeful side of cancer have gone a long way in making a difference in the fight against cancer.”
Regardless of any perceived declines in Armstrong’s fame, his fellow RAGBRAI riders remain unabashed in their praise.
Isaacson, the longtime Chicago rider, is 55 but he moons over brushes with Armstrong like a kid meeting his hero.
“I’ve probably spent 650 hours riding RAGBRAI,” Isaacson figures. “The most exciting three seconds was watching Lance Armstrong fly by.”
CANCER EVENT: Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong organization said the cyclist will hold a “meet and greet” at about 8:30 a.m. today in Carroll about efforts to help cancer survivors and fund research. Joining him will be a University of Iowa doctor and four state lawmakers. The exact location wasn’t disclosed.
ZOOM: Then it’s off toward Boone. Armstrong’s camp didn’t release any further details of his schedule.
-By DANIEL P. FINNEY, Des Moines Register