Tea for two-wheelers

August 22, 1976

Everyone in Boulder, Colo. knew it was coming, but unsuspecting out-of-state motorists, topping a rise on Route 93 one morning last week, saw this: first, in the distance, the gleaming town at the base of the mountains; then, squirming up the hill—glints of chrome in the sun—hundreds of pumping legs. A bicentennipede?

No, it was the Red Zinger. Which is a bicycle race—in fact, three bicycle races in three days: a 10.8-mile time trial, a 93.4-mile road race and the 50-mile Criterium, so called because it is the ultimate test. In toto the event is the Red Zinger Classic. Red Zinger, sports fans, did not pitch for the Toledo Mud-Hens in 1935. He is an it, and it is an herb tea—not as universally known as Ginseng, but nonetheless popular with yin and yang, organic-food types.

Celestial Seasonings, the makers of Red Zinger, are proud of their brew. And Red Zinger is only one of 12 exotic potions they have designed to invigorate the spirit and pump the body full of energy. There is, for instance, Mo's 24, a tea named for Mo Siegel, Celestial's 25-year-old president, which combines hibiscus, raspberry leaves, peppermint, camomile, anise and a dozen other herbs. There is Mellow Mint tea and Sleepy Time. Naturally, the folks at Celestial Seasonings are interested in having people buy their potions. Because clean air and physical fitness are very big in Boulder, two years ago they decided to push their product by putting on a bike race, and they decided to call it the Red Zinger Classic (a Sleepy Time Classic may have struck them as inappropriate).

On this morning, the day of the road race up and down the Rockies, there was no shortage of either clean air or fitness. Some of the world's greatest quadriceps—those muscles above the knees—were whizzing by in near-90° heat. The altitude was a heart-thumping 5,350 feet at the start, and from there the way was up and up.

Hunched over their handlebars were 130 cyclists including five members of the recent U.S. Olympic A and B teams, an Australian named Clyde Sefton and an Englishman, Dudley Hayton. Eight other foreign cyclists, including the six-man Mexican Olympic team, made the word classic seem appropriate; if the race was only two years old it was, indeed, a classy field and the first international stage event in U.S. history. As the road race proceeded four or five bunched cyclists would suddenly sprint ahead, like frightened minnows in a school, their backs bent, their heads down, their eyes squinting upward. Each man took his turn at the front, blocking the wind for those behind; no one wins a bicycle race alone.

They passed the hamlet of Wondervu, elevation 8,900 feet and aptly named. And in the press trucks ahead there were two kinds of emotion—admiration and awe tinged with fear. The first was in response to men all but sprinting up mountains, the second was at the sight of men tearing down them. Officials and press sat in the trucks facing backward, mercifully spared from seeing where they were going, but they winced anyway as the cyclists hurtled down at close to 60 mph, clinging to their wispy 20-pound bikes, inches from the edges of cliffs, barely slowing at hairpin turns. Knees brushed knees, tires all but touched tires; disaster was always a split second away.

In one truck was Wyck Hay, vice-president of advertising for Celestial Seasonings. He stood, bracing himself, a megaphone at his mouth, screaming at people on the shoulder, "Hold onto that dog," or "Get that car off the road and into a driveway." When the break came, the five Americans fresh from Montreal, the Aussie and the Englishman left the pack, trailed by the Mexicans and 117 other contenders.

Then even the leading Americans and the Englishman were left behind. Clyde Sefton, the 24-year-old Aussie, was the first to wheel into the town of Ward, at 9,253 feet the highest point on the course, for which he won a $400 savings bond and the sobriquet "King of the Mountain." A few miles farther on, one of the Americans attacked and passed him. Sefton sprinted, caught up and broke 20 seconds into the lead. Olympian Sefton had finished 15th overall in Montreal, and now he was out to prove he was much better than that. Slipping precariously between equipment trucks and the guardrail at 60 mph, he continued his headlong downhill dash.

"He's a monster," came a voice from a truck.

"They're all monsters," said Kim Howard, wife of last year's overall champion, John Howard.

A member of the U.S. Olympic A team, "Monster" Howard was at it again this year, defending his title. At one point, leading an attack, he caught Sefton. But then Howard attempted to cross a railroad track. His front wheel collapsed. He got a new one from the support van, which would supply 50 wheels before the race was over, but the replacement cost Howard 45 seconds. Two of his Olympic teammates, Dale Stetina and Tom Doughty, dropped back to pull him on, helping him make up time.

The previous day Howard had won the first event, the time trial, which counted for 10% of the total score. If he could finish high in the road race, which counted 50%, it would improve his chances to repeat as overall champion and give his fellow Olympians the team title. Sefton had finished 22nd in the time trial, one minute 23 seconds behind Howard. So now Howard, Stetina and Doughty took turns leading, and in 1½ miles they were back in the break.

The South St. Vrain Creek, which had been a rushing torrent, had quieted by the time the cyclists raced the last 15 miles into Boulder. Railings of the old Hotel Boulderado strained under the weight of spectators on the balconies, looking up 13th Street over the heads of the crowds lining the sidewalks below. After 92 miles and more than three hours of racing, it all came down to a mad seven-man sprint into town. They had nothing left at the end, these men; neither Sefton, whose front wheel crossed the finish line milliseconds ahead of the others (winning him a $1,350 savings bond), nor Howard, fifth across but in virtually the same time as Sefton.

Howard's chances looked good as the last day's event, the Criterium, came up—69 laps around North Boulder Park. He had only to avoid the kind of disaster that befell him in Montreal. Two-thirds of the way through the road race the cyclist in front of him had gone down in the rain. Howard swerved, and remembers "a slow, dragging sort of slide down Ste. Catherine's Street."

The road race just completed may have been the weekend's most dangerous event, but the Criterium was the most exciting, if only because there were more people to be excited. One official estimated the crowd at 15,000, "the biggest darn U.S. bike race crowd I've ever seen." The Red Zinger was zinging. The unofficial theme was health. A hot dog would have been quarantined. Fans and faddists alike ate alfalfa sprouts on organic bread and drank iced Red Zinger with honey.

There were no bad vantage points, but the S curve at Balsam and Alpine was popular. Curves are where things happen. The cyclists knew just how far they could lean. It always looked too far, and when it started to rain, that is how far it often was. Once three bikes went down in a chain reaction, suddenly and sickeningly, but to those involved it was a slow, dragging slide, a blur of color that never seemed to stop. Most of the cyclists bore the marks of their trade, a network of old scars and fresh contusions on elbows and knees.

Howard led only briefly in the race, and though at one point a break of three cyclists moved nearly a lap ahead of him, he was not worried. He knew that the two men who posed a threat—Sefton and England's Hayton, who had finished third in both the time trial and road race—were behind him. So he played it safe. "A fall could have cost me the whole deal," he said later, and he finished 1½ minutes behind the winner, Bill Nickson, another Englishman. But for the second straight year he had won the overall championship. He went home with a $1,650 stereo system.

Tom Doughty was second overall, winning a $700 graphite bicycle frame and a $200 bond, and two of his fellow B team members, Dunn and Stetina, were fourth and fifth. Not surprisingly, the Bs won the team championship and a $1,200 bond.

After the race Celestial Seasonings treated all the contenders to a banquet featuring brown rice with almonds, steamed vegetables with salad, fresh fruit juices and, naturally—what else—Red Zinger tea.