How Lance Armstrong transformed North American culture

Leave aside the doping allegations if you can, the seven-time Tour de France winner has transformed not just his sport but the worlds of business, charity fund-raising and commuter cycling.

Lance Armstrong's spectacular story, which includes beating testicular cancer and winning an unprecedented seven Tour de France races, has amazed people the world over.

While a report released by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency on Oct. 10 offers the most compelling evidence yet that Armstrong relied on an ultra-sophisticated campaign of blood doping to win his titles, retailers and biking enthusiasts say that his impact on North American culture has nonetheless been profound.

"We use the term the 'Lance Armstrong effect,'" says Peter Vallance, brand manager for Rocky Mountain Bicycles, a B.C. company that manufactures semi-custom bikes.

"He's had a huge effect in cycling in general and [inspired] a massive awakening to the European cycling culture."

But more than just the world of retail, the Lance Armstrong effect transformed sport and commuter cycling in general, and also played a huge rule in launching the now ubiquitous charity bike-a-thon.

For a time, it even touched down on Wall Street where, in the early 2000s, a common refrain was that cycling was "the new golf," says Bill Strickland, editor-at-large for the U.S. magazine Bicycling.

"Wall Street discovered cycling, and they were doing a lot of business on bikes as opposed to the golf course," says Strickland.

He says that executives were drawn to cycling because they admired Armstrong's determination as well as business acumen, which was in evidence in his fundraising work with the Lance Armstrong Foundation, a non-profit health advocacy group that has raised $470 million US since its inception in 1997.

"He's a type A [personality], so a lot of those guys identified with him."

A global brand

Armstrong's rise to glory began in the early-90s. The Texas native earned a first-stage win at the Tour de France in 1993 and finished 12th in a race at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

But it was his unparalleled winning streak at the premier cycling event in the world, the Tour de France, between 1999 and 2006 that turned him into a global brand and galvanized would-be riders.

Armstrong in 1999, in the midst of his first Tour de France win. (Laurent Rebours/Associated Press)

The fact that he conquered cancer, which he contracted in 1996, made his athletic achievements all the more inspiring.

And while it is hard to quantify a single individual's impact on unit sales of bicycles, retailers say the Lance Armstrong effect is palpable.

"In the early 2000s, we had a marked increase in sales of road-racing bikes, which sort of stayed at that level and hasn't come back down," says Bruce Ford, manager of a Cycle Path store in Toronto.

"I think part of that was due to the press [Armstrong] was getting at that time."

Tim McDermott, product manager for cycling for Canadian sporting retailer Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), says the market share of road-racing bicycles has grown dramatically in the last decade.

"In the mid-90s, road was almost virtually non-existent in the marketplace, it was a tiny percentage," he says.

But he now estimates that road bikes account for about 65 per cent of bike sales at MEC. Not only is there increased interest, but he says consumers are willing to lay down big bucks for these machines.

"For people to spend, six, seven, 10 grand on a road bike, there's tonnes of guys and girls doing that," McDermott says.

A 'wholly different phenomenon'

Prior to Armstrong's ascendance, there hadn't been so much interest in cycling in North America since the heyday of Greg LeMond in the 1980s.

In 1986, the California native became the first American cyclist to win the Tour de France, triumphing again in 1989 and 1990.

"When Greg LeMond was winning, cycling participation went through the roof," says Strickland at Bicycling magazine.

But the sheer reach of Armstrong's influence is "a wholly different phenomenon," he adds.

He says Armstrong did more than just spur bicycle sales, particularly for U.S. manufacturer Trek, whose machines he became famous for riding.

Armstrong also drove popular interest in triathlons and Gran Fondo races, which are European-style mountain races that typically cover a distance of 200 kilometres.

Matthew Pioro, editor of Canadian Cycling Magazine, says that Armstrong's racing prowess, coupled with his inspiring conquest of cancer, has also strengthened the charity ride movement.

The Lance Armstrong Foundation promotes this cause with regular LiveStrong race events around the world.

"Now you have all these people keen to dress up like their hero and go on long rides," says Pioro.

Strickland says that the Lance Armstrong effect has even trickled down to commuter cycling, encouraging a greater reliance on bikes, particularly in urban centres, as a simple mode of transit.  "Armstrong has brought more visibility to cycling in general, but it would be tough to say that with the commuter cyclist, how much effect it has," says McDermott.

"I suspect gas prices and traffic and congestion have had far more of an effect."


Andre Mayer is a features writer and editor at He is also the editor of the environmental newsletter What on Earth?, which won a Digital Publishing Award in 2019 for best editorial newsletter. You can contact him at