Greg Was A Diamond In A Flawed Setting

Tour de France hero Greg LeMond won a tour de West that was more carnival than classic
August 25, 1985

The Coors International Bicycle Classic of 1985 will be remembered for many reasons. Certainly as the event in which Greg LeMond made his triumphant return to American cycling, dominating all but one member of an 84-rider field with such ease that he began referring to the 15-day, 949-mile race as "a vacation." It will also be remembered for the U.S. debut of cycling legend Bernard Hinault, five-time winner of the Tour de France, who wowed spectators with his Gallic good looks and charm but met his match at the breakfast table when he misread a packet of salt. And for the emergence of Boulder's Andy Hampsten, 23, as the second-best cyclist in the U.S. after a gutty kamikaze charge from Golden, Colo. up the Coal Creek Canyon last Thursday ended in defeat and, finally, chaos, as the Classic unraveled in Mork-and-Mindy fashion amid the bustling traffic of downtown Boulder. But most of all, the 1985 Coors Classic will go down as the one that tried to make the leap from mere Colorado curiosity to world-class bicycle race. Alas, like the bicycle stuntman who landed on the 17th of 20 people lying in a prone position in Denver's Tivoli Plaza last Friday night, a diversion typical of the vaudeville atmosphere surrounding this race from the outset, the effort fell a little bit short.

Oh well, at least no one was seriously hurt. The Classic began Aug. 3 in San Francisco, the first time in the race's 11-year history that it had strayed more than a few miles outside the Colorado border, and right from the start, coaches and competitors were screaming about safety. Many of the courses, laid out by race director Michael Aisner and his staff, seemed better designed for demolition derbies. "Every bike-race promoter in America thinks the public wants fast, dangerous races," said LeMond, who was racing in the U.S. for the first time since he won the Classic in 1981 as a 20-year-old. "It's stupid to have courses where you have to worry about surviving a crash to win. But Michael Aisner has never raced a bike and doesn't know what real bike racing's about."

For a purist, real bike racing is the point-to-point road racing of Europe's premier events, the Tour de France and the Giro D'Italia. The cyclists arise at point A, pedal 100 miles or so to point B, spend the night, then leave from point B the next morning. Spectators line the road along the entire route, waiting hours for one fleeting glimpse of the riders. Americans like their entertainment in slightly stiffer doses, and Aisner knows what real promoting is about. "I've borrowed things from pro wrestling, from Roller Derby, from lots of different sports besides bicycling," says the 37-year-old Aisner, whose bag of tricks included Big Bertha, a trained elephant that hoisted one of the stage winners onto its trunk in Reno. Aisner, who has been the race director for the Classic since 1978, also owns three pet tarantulas and two strapping hognose snakes, one of which had escaped its cage and was silently patrolling the Classic offices in Boulder last week. "We're entertainment, in a way," Aisner says. "I have to take a pedestrian and first turn him into a spectator, and then into a fan in just 45 minutes."

Ah, the computer age. Whatever happened to the old-fashioned soft sell? Stage One of the most prestigious bike race in America was called the Fisherman's Wharf Criterium, a seven-tenths-of-a-mile loop that included a mad dash through a warehouse chock full of concession booths, followed by a hairpin turn in the blinding sunlight which, if misjudged, would have resulted in an unscheduled dip in San Francisco Bay. No time to celebrate, here comes another turn to avoid the Blueback, a World War II relic that was docked at the pier. It was an obstacle course the cyclists repeated 60 times. "Never crossed my mind that I'd have to worry about one of my riders running into a submarine," moaned Michael Fatka, coach of Hampsten's Levi's-Raleigh team. "I thought I was going to have to pull someone off the deck."

After an 87-mile road race from Sonoma to Sacramento, the third stage of the Classic was another criterium on a seven-tenths-of-a-mile course in which the field had to funnel into Old Sacramento's partly cobbled Front Street, a route that had Hinault thinking about nothing but survival. "I have never felt as endangered in the Tour de France as I did in the San Francisco and Sacramento criteriums," said Hinault, whose La Vie Claire team, which includes LeMond, was paid $100,000 by Celestial Seasonings, the herbal tea company, to ride under the Red Zinger banner during the Coors. "If they were five to seven miles long, the criteriums would be all right. As it was I was scared to fall and be hurt, so I could only race defensively." Hinault, who was using the Classic to train for the World Championships in Italy two weeks from now, finished in ninth place overall, a standing that didn't bother him in the least. "If I finish fourth or 10th, it doesn't matter," he had said. "My goal is to help Greg LeMond win."

As it turned out, LeMond, fresh from his second-place Tour de France finish last month, didn't need much help. He, too, was looking ahead to the World Championships, which he won in 1983, and was outspoken that the Coors course selections were too short, averaging only 59.3 miles. "In the Tour de France we were riding six or seven hours a day," said LeMond. "Here it's two or three hours. It's not nearly as grueling. Of course, you wouldn't want it to be, but I'd have liked at least one long time trial during the race. What irritates me is that Aisner doesn't seem to want the strongest racer to win."

Individual time trials are called "races of truth" in Europe because they separate the strongest riders from the hangers-on. The Classic, fearful that LeMond and Hinault would make a shambles of an otherwise thin field, had only one such stage, and that was a token 11.2-mile sprint last Friday. Truth will out. Hinault, Hampsten and LeMond finished 1-2-3.

In fact, Hinault, LeMond and the rest of the Red Zinger team routinely trained for an hour before and after each race to stay in condition. Overseeing this regimen was Paul Koechli, Red Zinger's coach, who, when he wasn't threatening to pull his team from the race because of unsafe racing conditions, was establishing himself as the Woody Hayes of cycling. Koechli's wildest moment—last week, anyway—came during the Morgul-Bismarck stage on Saturday when he tried to settle an argument with a Dutch rider by swerving at him in his automobile. For that, Koechli was fined $50.

It was against this backdrop of carnival and controversy that the actual race unfolded. Quickly it became a two-man affair when on Aug. 7, during the fifth stage, LeMond and Hampsten gained 4:22 on the field during the 67-mile road race from Tahoe to Reno, LeMond's hometown. That vaulted LeMond into the overall lead, 1:25 ahead of the 5'9", 138-pound Hampsten, a Boulder resident who had won the 20th stage in this year's Giro D'Italia. The field was then airlifted to Grand Junction, Colo., where the headaches began in earnest. First, race officials botched the call during the finishing sprint of the Tour of the Moon road race, a scenic 76-mile cruise through the Colorado National Monument. With 300 yards to go, East Germany's Olaf Jentzsch and LeMond started their sprints, with Hampsten just behind, in LeMond's slipstream. As the finish neared, Hampsten made his move, only to be blocked by Jentzsch. Hampsten raised his arm in protest—racers must hold a straight line during the last 200 yards of a sprint—while Jentzsch beat LeMond to the wire. Then the fun began.

Initially, officials ruled in favor of Hampsten's protest, declaring LeMond the winner, Hampsten second, Jentzsch third. During the medal ceremony, however, LeMond, who felt he had been beaten fairly, raised the East German's arm and pulled him up to the winner's platform. Hampsten was having no part of that, and hopped off. What now? Officials reviewed the tapes, decided that Jentzsch was the winner, but withheld the 30- and 20-second bonuses that go with first and second place. A livid LeMond zinged this ruling in fluent French and English, while the persuasive Koechli lodged an official protest. The next day LeMond's 20-second bonus was reinstated, and he got a warning for "verbal abuse of officials."

"What upset me was the way they kept changing their minds," said LeMond, who was coming across to race organizers as a pain in the prima donna. "They were hypocrites."

Perhaps inept is a better word. Or intimidated. One problem was that every time Hinault, LeMond or Koechli looked cross-eyed, race officials bowed, blushed and tap-danced. Desperate for the Classic to become a regular stop for top European racers, the organizers quaked at the idea of the La Vie Claire riders returning to France with the kind of horror stories that were, indeed, circulating.

LeMond increased his lead over Hampsten to 1:55 as the race traveled through some of Colorado's most scenic areas—Aspen, Vail, Copper Mountain, Estes Park. A superb climber, Hampsten knew his best chance to make up the ground was in the Boulder Mountain road race last Thursday, a showcase stage that began at the Coors Brewery in Golden and was supposed to include 88 miles of some of the toughest multiple climbs that the riders would face, including a 6% grade over nine-tenths of a mile of dirt, before ending in downtown Boulder. The morning of the race, however, it was discovered that in grading the dirt section the night before, the highway department had upturned hundreds of rocks over the proposed course, making it unraceable. The course was rerouted up Coal Creek Canyon, which was entirely paved and a few miles shorter than the original track. Still, Hampsten had decided that he had to make his move. "That was my best shot," he said later. "For me to make up two minutes on LeMond, I needed to do a radical move on a radical course."

Thirteen miles into the stage, during the first extended climb, Hampsten blew into the front by himself. "I needed to separate Greg from his team, to set a pace that would make it a one-on-one battle as early as I could," Hampsten said. LeMond took up the chase, but surprisingly none of his Red Zinger teammates followed, including Hinault. "I was fighting like a dog to catch up," Hinault said later, "but all I was doing was burping up salty coffee." That morning he had mistaken a packet of salt for sugar, and the gas formed by that mismarriage effectively removed him from the race.

Hampsten, meanwhile, was hammering away at the climb. "He's trying to break their legs!" Aisner called from the pace car. At 36 miles Hampsten had a lead of 1:10 over a chase group of six, which included LeMond and Doug Shapiro, the defending champion, who eventually finished third overall. The wind was dead in Hampsten's face, however, and working alone it could only be a matter of time before he tired. At 48 miles the chase group caught him. "Defeating the wind is 80 percent of all racing," Hampsten said later. "I was going as hard as I could. I was pretty shattered by the time they caught me."

No more shattered than Aisner would be a half hour later when Boulder police informed him that the race would not be allowed to proceed to the finish line because the streets had not been cleared to their satisfaction. "What?" he exploded. "We've got to get through! Move these cars! You can't do this!"

"How many racers do you want killed?" police lieutenant John Pierce yelled back, having ordered a roadblock 2½ miles from the finish line, where thousands of spectators patiently waited. The problem was, no one got word to the racers, who weren't about to let a few police cars block their way after 88 miles of racing. The first one through was Shapiro, another hometown boy, who had forged ahead of LeMond and Hampsten's group by 2:05. Cutting left at the roadblock, he continued to race, darting through traffic all the way to the finish. "I was scared," he said afterward. "I almost got killed out there."

Other riders had similar experiences. "Andy [Hampsten] had to direct us back to the finish line because we were all lost," said a bemused LeMond. His father, Bob, who rode in this race in 1978 when it was the Red Zinger Classic, was more direct. "This is a landmark in fiascos," he said grimly. "It's a waste of time to even be here."

The most embarrassing thing was that such a foul-up would take place in Boulder, the very birthplace of the race. On Sunday, race officials and the Boulder police had another crack at it during the closing North Boulder Park Circuit Race, and the Classic came to an end without further incident. Summed up LeMond: "It wasn't as fun as I thought it would be. Put it this way, I'd rather be second at the Tour de France than first here. It's the best American race, all right. But it still has a long way to go."

PHOTODAVID MADISON/DUOMOLeMond, wearing the striped jersey of the race leader, pedals powerfully into a turn. TWO PHOTOSDAVID MADISON/DUOMOLeMond thought the one time trial too little, too late (left), but he and Hampsten were all smiles at the Denver criterium (above). PHOTOJOSEPH DANIELThe Tour of the Moon was marred by interference claims at the finish. PHOTOJOSEPH DANIELHinault (8), making his U.S. debut, rode to help his teammate LeMond win, while Koechli (right), the Red Zinger coach, offered advice in his calmer moments. PHOTOCARL IWASAKI[See caption above.] PHOTOJAMES CASSIMUSThe center attraction of Aisner's hype in Reno was Big Bertha, a trained pachyderm. PHOTOJOSEPH DANIEL[See caption above.] PHOTOJOSEPH DANIELWith most of the race, and its problems, behind them, the riders pedaled from Morgul to Bismarck.