Well, the Soviets have something else to worry about. It isn't enough that the U.S.S.R. must contend with dissidents, Poland and such vile capitalist trash as punk rock; now in cycling, where the Soviet Union has been very big, it has run into Greg LeMond.
LeMond is the dimple-chinned, blond-haired, rosy-cheeked Yankee Doodle Dandy with the pastoral address of Washoe Valley, Nev., a hamlet near which steep mountain passes and oxygen-thin altitude are perfect for developing the world's next great spoke hero.
Last week in the Coors International Bicycle Classic, with the candles on his 20th birthday cake barely extinguished, the indefatigable LeMond challenged the older, more seasoned Soviet stars, as well as most of America's best and riders from nine other countries. When the tortuous nine-day stage race through and around the Rocky Mountains ended over the Fourth of July weekend, his pocketful of miracles had patriots waving American flags and screaming.
Bicycle stage racing is a team sport, with riders blocking and pulling for each other, and when the Soviets selected the Coors Classic for their first senior-division appearance in the U.S., everyone assumed that one of their five Olympians to make the trip, including the gold and bronze medal winners in the individual road race at the 1980 Games, would take the individual title.
July 12, 1981
And on June 30, after five days of racing, it looked as if that would be the case. Yuri Kashirin was in first place while LeMond, miffed that the majority of the Americans were intimidated by the Soviets, was seventh. But the next day LeMond won the 32-mile race over aptly named Suicide Hill. LeMond's forte is flattening out a landscape, and he blitzed the pack on the upgrades, assuming the lead on the third circuit of the 18-lap course and then outsprinting Noberto Caseres of Colombia at the finish. Later, in that day's second event, LeMond got to wear the leader's red jersey by virtue of a second-place finish in a time trial, thereby setting himself up to pull off a major upset in the closest thing the U.S. has to the Tour de France.
The Coors Classic was born in 1975 as the Red Zinger, a little two-day pedal through the park, and since then organizers have kept adding new events with a view to toughening it up; this year they sent the 70 male competitors on a 538-mile dash hitting Denver, Boulder, Vail, Estes Park and Snowmass, for more than $50,000 in prize money.
This is LeMond's kind of racing, the tougher the better—early in the going he fretted that it wasn't hot enough. As a junior (15-18 years of age), he had created a sensation by winning three medals in the 1979 Junior World Championships, including the gold for the glamour event, the road race, and this year he signed a rich pro contract with the highly respected French team of Renault-Elf-Gitane. He thus became a teammate of Jacques Boyer of Carmel, Calif., the 1980 Coors Classic winner, who last week was off making history as the first U.S. rider ever to participate in the Tour de France, while LeMond and his third-string French teammates took on the Russians. "It's important for me to be here," LeMond said. "I want to keep my position as the top American in the U.S."
This has been a big year for LeMond; his pro coaches have coaxed him through the early phases of his development the way a major league baseball club might season a phenom on the farm. He won his first stage of a pro race in the Tour de l'Oise in France, but perhaps even more impressive was his fourth-place finish in the Dauphine Libèrè, which is regarded as the second or third most prestigious race in Europe. LeMond is expected to ride in the Tour de France within two years, and after last week his boosters were repeating their conviction that he could be the first American to win it. "First," you may have noticed, is a word that keeps popping up around LeMond.
Normally, someone of his reputation would have been the center of attention in the Coors, but last week the Soviets grabbed most of the publicity. "They've got all their best people here," said Race Director Michael Aisner. "The Russians came not just to win, but to embarrass. Before they arrived they asked a lot of questions. The one they didn't ask is: 'Who'll be there?' They were supremely confident."
Perhaps that is what caught up with the U.S.S.R.'s big gun, Sergei Sukhoruchenkov, the road race gold medalist in the Moscow Olympics and recently voted top amateur cyclist in Europe. (The Soviets don't participate in strictly pro cycling events such as the Tour de France.) "Sukho" took himself out of the race early, in the 83-mile stage known as the Bob Cook Memorial Vail Pass Road Race. Somewhat impetuously, he broke away and rode alone for 46 miles, expending an enormous amount of energy and exhausting himself before he was caught and passed by the pack. Sukhoruchenkov never recovered from that debacle, although he eventually made up enough time to finish fourth.
Meanwhile, LeMond was moving closer to his personal confrontation with the other Soviets. The Coors Classic was decided, as it often has been, in the 10th stage, the 92-mile Morgul-Bismarck, a fearsome race held last Saturday near the outskirts of Boulder. The 13.2-mile course, none of which is protected by a hint of shade, features the Hump and the Wall, two precipitous stretches of road. Ho-hum. The Soviets had been using the course for training from the moment they had arrived in Colorado.
Early in the Morgul-Bismarck, the five U.S.S.R. riders broke ahead of the pack, although one soon faded back. "Hey, hey," shouted LeMond, calling for help as he gave pursuit. He would get none from his teammates. With about 53 miles left in the stage, the temperature was near 90°, the sun was scorching, and except for Alessandro Pozzi of Italy, who eventually got a flat tire, and Alan McCormack of Ireland, LeMond was alone with the Soviet juggernaut.
Lap after lap, he stayed right there, hanging with the Soviets and McCormack. Entering the final stretch—the 150-yard Wall—LeMond made his move. As the Russians weaved and blocked, LeMond pulled ahead and sprinted for the finish line. Yuri Barinov, bronze medalist at Moscow, stayed on LeMond's rear wheel and slingshotted past him at the finish, winning by a bike length. LeMond's second place, however, all but guaranteed him the individual title; the Russians nailed down the team championship with four of the first five places.
"It was four against one and they still couldn't drop me," LeMond said later, adding derisively, "They're stupid." He was a bit irked at the way he had to pick his route through weaving bikes in the final sprint and at the Soviets' verbal harassment throughout the race. When asked about LeMond's comments, they feigned surprise.
"He must learn respect for the other competitors," huffed Sukhoruchenkov. Countered LeMond, "He's 25. I'm 20. I got a lot more time at this than him."
In last Sunday's final event, while Connie Carpenter, after a year's retirement, was winning the Coors women's title, LeMond protected his big four-minute, 47-second lead, taking it easy in a 50-mile criterium in North Boulder Park and avoiding anything counterproductive, like a major crash. He finished with that lead over the runner-up, Kashirin. The Soviets may have come looking for an easy victory, but they should have asked about LeMond.