One of the hoariest canons of cycling holds that when professionals and amateurs race together, the amateurs don't show up the pros. As Tour de France winner Greg LeMond says, "Pros don't take lightly amateurs winning races off them." Yet for most of the 11 days of the second Tour de Trump, which ended in Boston on Sunday, a 19-year-old from the Soviet Union—a kid who has never taken a ruble for pushing a pedal—led the field around by its handlebars.
His lead didn't stand up all the way; it disappeared over a single hill on the next-to-last day. The $50,000 winner's check went to Raul Alcala of Mexico, a pro who was quite happy to cash it. But the youngster, Vladislav Bobrik, had been so impressive that no one begrudged him his breach of etiquette.
Bobrik is a fair, ingenuous-looking youth, with a self-effacing manner that the man who lent the Tour de Trump its name could learn from. (Promise: From here on, there will be no mention of his name, let alone hers or even hers.) The rest of the Soviet's seven-man amateur team, which found itself in the race only because of a last-minute sponsorship deal with Du Pont, was just as green as Bobrik, its eldest rider having turned 21 a couple of days into the Tour. The team supported Bobrik magnificently. Said LeMond, "I don't think many pro teams could have controlled a race that way." LeMond himself was a nonfactor from start to finish, but more on that later.
The man who ultimately conquered Bobrik on that hill in upstate New York is an opposite ordered up from central casting. Alcala, 26, has competed four times in the Tour de France. He grew up in Monterrey as one of eight kids. Winning is his livelihood, and his sharp, dark features and fiery style suggest one of his heroes, retired French champion Bernard Hinault.
May 20, 1990
For seven days Bobrik wore the garish pink jersey emblematic of the overall lead. He had seized control during the third stage of the 13-stage race, an 87.7-mile stretch through largely flat Virginia countryside from Fredricksburg to Richmond. Given Bobrik's obscurity, none of the pros much cared when he slipped off on a breakaway that morning. The pack sat back, believing the youngster from the Crimea had a harmless eight-or nine-minute edge, a belief based on split times provided to the riders only intermittently by race officials.
In fact, Bobrik's lead was much larger. It would crest at 12 minutes that day, a huge advantage for any rider to take in a single stage. By the time the peloton, or pack, reacted, Bobrik had opened a cushion that would keep him in the pink for a week. The lead held up even as Bobrik took the best shots of some of the world's top pro teams: Alcala's PDM; Panasonic-Sportlife, with two newly minted pro riders, Viatcheslav Ekimov of the Soviet Union and East Germany's Olaf Ludwig; and France's Z/Kickers, which was led by Atle Kvalsvoll of Norway instead of by LeMond, who rode at three-quarter speed as he tried to get back into shape after several weeks of illness.
Of all the pros, Bobrik knew Alcala posed the biggest threat. Alcala had emphatically won both of the Tour's individual time trials—the stages the French call "races of truth," because they pit a rider alone on his bike against the clock. Moreover, Alcala sat in second place in the overall standings, 1:37 back, going into the final four days.
On the first of those four days, during an undulating stage from Stroudsburg, Pa., to New Paltz, N.Y., through wind-driven rain, PDM went on the attack. Three of Alcala's support riders—in the sport's colorful idiom they're called domestiques, because they do the stars' dirty work, towing them along in their slipstreams—were sent on a breakaway just before the first hill climb of the day. But the Soviets, shadowing Alcala, chased down this break as they had so many others. Alcala could take only 10 seconds out of Bobrik's lead going into New Paltz.
Few riders have the disposition to get comfortable in a leader's jersey. The attention of the press and the pressure of being out front, of being a marked man day after day, wears on a cyclist, particularly one as young as the 5'9", 139-pound Bobrik. In the clubby quarters of the peloton, Alcala woofed at Bobrik. "It must have been hard for Bobrik not to notice him," said one rider, "because Raul can be pretty intimidating out there." This was all part of the game, all part of trying to get the front-runner to crack. At a crucial juncture in the race, a leader's legs may go rubbery, his vigilance may lapse, or his heart may overrule his head.
However, with the youngster holding on to the lead day after day, the pros seemed to run out of tricks. After last Friday's circuit race through Central Park in Manhattan, only one day of hilly racing remained: a 123.7-mile stretch through the Catskill Mountains into Albany, N.Y., on Saturday. If PDM's plan was to keep the weight of the jersey on the young Russian as long as possible, it was cutting things awfully close. Said Bobrik afterward, "I think perhaps they underestimated our team from the very beginning."
PDM hoped to find an opportunity early, ideally on the first climb of the day, up Platte Cove Road. The ascent is called Devil's Kitchen, after the local topography, which suggests the inside of a cauldron. Last year's race traversed the same hill, and seven riders found it so steep that they dismounted and walked their bicycles to the top. If a rookie rider were ever going to be vulnerable, it would be here on a hellacious climb, with the pressure of the lead on his shoulders, and under attack from PDM, the most powerful pro team in the world. "This was our last real chance," said PDM's directeur sportif adjoint, Jonathan Boyer, later. "We were either going to do it or die."
A crowd three- and four-deep lined the roadside all the way to the top, many of them remembering last year's Devil's Kitchen climb, when runoff rainwater caused wheels to spin, and the sheer grade set the clutches of the race officials' motorcycles to grinding. At the foot of the hill, Alcala and Bobrik were together toward the rear of the pack. "I saw that he was suffering," Alcala would say. "That's when I attacked to the front."
Other PDM riders said they could hear Bobrik breathing heavily. "How could they hear my breathing if they were huffing and puffing themselves?" Bobrik said later, sensibly enough.
Yet by the time Alcala had reached the summit, Bobrik was 40 seconds back. Here the hammer went down, and down the backside of the mountain went Alcala. Someone later asked Bobrik if he had seen Alcala float away from him on the ascent and if he had tried to keep up. "I just tried to get to the top," he replied.
Nineteen other riders representing six teams joined Alcala's joyride. "They knew," said Boyer, "that if they made the break stick, it was a new race." However, none of them stood to benefit as much as Alcala. He turned his exhilaration into energy over the next 60 miles of mostly descending grade and stretched his advantage over Bobrik by more than a minute every 10 miles. As soon as Alcala left Devil's Kitchen, the angels took over.
There was nothing Bobrik could do. Cyclists in dire circumstances sometimes can cut a deal for help with other teams, but so many different teams were already safely in the front group that U.S.S.R. directeur sportif Alexander Kuznetsov was unable to recruit mercenaries to hunt down the front-runners. Even Ekimov, a former Leningrad club teammate of Bobrik's who had been an ally through much of the race, couldn't be persuaded to drop back and allow Bobrik to ride in his slipstream. All he could offer was sympathy: Ekimov had had the nerve to win a stage as an amateur in last year's Tour, and some pros reportedly rewarded him by jamming a feed bag into his wheel.
No one was going to catch Alcala's breakaway on this day. It was motoring along so quickly that when 7-Eleven's Steve Bauer dropped out of it—partly because of a case of bronchitis—he couldn't face the prospect of pedaling home in the 30-minute no-man's-land between the two groups. So he sat down in a roadside lawn chair and, taking in the picturesque Hudson Valley, waited for the straggling peloton to catch up to him.
Alcala rolled past the Stage 12 finish line at Albany's Washington Park more than half an hour ahead of Bobrik. The next day, the promenade to the finish in Boston's Copley Square was perfunctory, as Alcala took the race by 43 seconds over Kvalsvoll. "PDM was like the cat," said 7-Eleven rider Davis Phinney. "The Russians were like mice, romping in front of them all week long. But the Russians killed themselves too many days in a row. I wish, in a way, Bobrik could have held on. He had so much heart. But PDM had the strength, they had the experience and they had the team. They had it wired."
Soon enough Bobrik will be a pro, perhaps he will be as prosperous as Ekimov, who signed a $500,000 contract with Panasonic, the richest deal ever for a first-year pro. Then he will be able to join the rest of the peloton in complaining about how grueling this Tour was. Last year, when 7-Eleven's Dag Otto Lauritzen took the lead on Day 2 and kept it all the way, riders griped that the course was too easy. This year, that was the thought furthest from anyone's mind. Three days of double stages of racing and all the early morning wake-up calls to catch auto transfers to new starting points had taken their toll. The climbs were steep and unpredictable, and they came rapidly. No wonder 46 of the 133 riders who started the race failed to finish.
One who did finish was LeMond, but he hardly did so robustly, muddling in at 78th, 1:40:26 behind Alcala. For four weeks during the European spring season LeMond didn't compete at all, and bouts with food poisoning and a virus raised doubts about his participation in this race. In New Paltz, he straggled in as the announcer finished handing out the day's awards. "I'm in the survivalist category now," he said.
LeMond is a slow starter, and he didn't win last summer's Tour de France by front-running. Still, the months following that dramatic victory were filled with receptions, banquets and commercial commitments, and his new directeur sportif, Roger Legeay, concerned that LeMond isn't capable of saying no, is now saying it for him. LeMond calls his malaise "the Tour de France syndrome."
"Cycling is the most demanding sport in the world, and trying to do too many things is going to affect performance," he says. "I'm maybe 70 percent now. By the Tour of Italy I hope to be 80 or 85. By the Tour of Switzerland, 90. So I'll hit the Tour de France at 100."
Even with American cycling's biggest drawing card hiding out in team cars and dodging press conferences over the fortnight, the Tour was warmly received. It revisited communities (Allentown, Pa.; Winchester, Va.; Catskill, N.Y.) through which it had passed during its inaugural year, and built on the following already established. Despite the airing of assaultive commercials, a big-screen TV at the various finish lines gave a sense of continuity to the action in this most ephemeral of spectator sports. There was no huge organizational boner, as when last year's contender Eric Vanderaerden of Belgium was misdirected on the final time trial. Finally, Devil's Kitchen, though not exactly on the order of the Tour de France's storied l'Alpe d'Huez, has the stuff that race mythology is made of.
The biggest albatross is that name. "The name helped us get noticed," says Tour publicist Steve Brunner. "Now we're trying to get people to take us seriously as a bike race. Some people still think this is a Wrestlemania-type event."
It isn't. Nor is it, as Bobrik found out on Saturday in a big way, amateur hour. That became clear in Devil's Kitchen, when the pros finally played their trum...er...hole card.