Is it back to the future for American cycling?
Special to the Vail Daily
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
VAIL, Colorado – On the day of the prologue to what promoters dubbed from the beginning “the most demanding bike race ever held on American soil,” it’s quite compelling to think about how far cycling has come not only in Colorado but across the United States.
Announcements last summer by Colorado’s then-Gov. Bill Ritter and sports legend Lance Armstrong about a “big bike race” harkening back to the good ol’ days of American cycling – and “the legacy of the Colorado-based Coors International Bicycle Classic” – made quite a splash. And just a year later, amid an ensuing deluge of hype, the inaugural, 507-mile, seven-day USA Pro Cycling Challenge, originally called the Quiznos Pro Challenge after the race’s first sponsor, the Quiznos pizza chain, has become America’s national tour even before it begins today in Colorado Springs.
But will the splash, and all the hype, ultimately result in a lasting rebirth of bicycle stage racing to Colorado and unprecedented growth of the sport across the country, as many speculate? The answer lies not with the racers who compete here nor the millions of spectators expected to watch them from the side of the road or on national television but with the promoters themselves and, more importantly, the entities with whom they contract to bankroll it all.
I, for one, am part of those good ol’ days of American cycling, having raced the Coors International Bicycle Classic in 1980 and its predecessor, the Red Zinger Bicycle Classic, in 1979. The event, first held in 1975, reportedly ran on a budget of $100,000, or far less. Teams, most of whom stayed at the homes of local fans or in nearby college dormitories, had to pay entry fees of hundreds of dollars for the opportunity to win hundreds – perhaps even a couple thousand – of dollars by race’s end.
My exploits included nearly winning two stages, the infamous Boulder Mountain Road Race and the famous “Morgul-Bismark”; losing an hour or more to the winners on a 100-plus-mile stage from downtown Denver to Vail Pass; and watching Australian sensation Phil Anderson lap the field, like, three times in the final stage around North Boulder Park. I was just 18 and 19 years old. Back then, my heroes were the winners of the first few editions of the race, big, powerful guys such as John Howard, of Texas, and Indiana’s Wayne Stetina, with whom I’d ultimately race and train on the U.S. National Cycling Team … and beat, soundly, at the 1979 National Road Race Championships in Milwaukee, just a week after “The Zinger.”
Fast forward a decade or so in my absence to the mid- to late-1980s, an era many American cycling fans now call the “Golden Years.” The overall winner of the 1988 Coors Classic, Colorado’s own Davis Phinney, won a BMW 325i. The race, at the hands of its visionary race director, Michael Aisner, grew to include stages in not only Colorado but Wyoming, Nevada, California and even Hawaii. Celebrities attending the race as VIPs included not only three five-time Tour de France winners, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault, but former U.S. President Gerald Ford, John Denver, Bill Walton, Susan Saint James, Shaun Cassidy, George Will, Joe Morgan and Wally Schirra. And Warner Bros. Studios based a feature film, “American Flyers,” starring Kevin Costner, on the race, filming some segments during the 1984 Tour of the Moon stage through Colorado National Monument.
Fast forward again to today. Organizers of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, the Atlanta-based Medalist Sports firm, don’t mention the race’s budget, though they were quick to announce the investment of $10 million in February by Rick Schaden, founder and majority shareholder of Quiznos, the event’s original title sponsor. Since then, Medalist has signed many more sponsors with, ostensibly, even deeper pockets, including Nissan, Coca-Cola, UnitedHealthcare and RadioShack, suggesting the budget has grown substantially … and justifying the removal of Quiznos as the lone title sponsor.
Much of that money will go toward appearance fees for riders, such as former world champion and 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans, of Australia, and Frank and Andy Schleck, of Luxembourg. Their presence alone – whether they race hard or not – guarantees massive media exposure, namely live television coverage on Versus, the cable sports channel, as well as NBC. VIP packages for well-heeled fans to get up-close-and-personal glimpses of their heroes, meanwhile, including lodging at luxury hotels and transfers via helicopter, have sold for thousands of dollars. The Colorado Department of Transportation, expecting as many as a million fans to swamp the state’s roads next week, announced camping along the route would be allowed, after all.
It remains to be seen, however, how long “The Challenge” will survive. History suggests it will last a few years at the whim of its sponsors, who realize the diminishing returns on their investment and then disappear. Aisner himself, in an interview with the DailyPeloton.com, recalls 1979, when he saved the Red Zinger Bicycle Classic – named after a tangy tea made by its Boulder-based sponsor, Celestial Seasonings – by buying it for a dollar, then signing the Coors Brewing Company as a new title sponsor in a relationship that lasted eight years. He laments the day, too, nine years later in the throes of a recession, when Coors marketing executives “pulled the plug” and his efforts to sign new title sponsors, such as EMCI, Nuprin and Dodge, failed.
That scenario has continued to play out many times for subsequent major U.S. professional stage races, namely the 1989 and ’90 Tour de Trump – bankrolled by Donald Trump himself – before Dupont came to the rescue in 1991 and continued supporting the race, renamed the Tour DuPont, for six years. Similar fates awaited in the next decade with the tours of Georgia and Missouri.
The American cycling scene, interestingly, continues to grow despite all this, with stage races across the country, albeit smaller ones, that have kept their brands, their identities, to themselves, such as the Tour of Gila in New Mexico, the Redlands Bicycle Classic in Southern California and Oregon’s perennial Cascade Classic, in its 31st year. And Medalist Sports’ own Amgen Tour of California for professionals – interestingly named after its title sponsor, the Thousand Oaks-based pharmaceutical company that manufactures the controversial blood doping product erythropoietin, commonly known as “EPO” – has survived six years.
Perhaps Medalist Sports, which organized the Tour de Trump/Dupont, as well as many other relatively successful races across the United States for three decades now, reflected on the history of “The Zinger,” “The Coors” and “The Dupont” and their ill-fated corporate title sponsorships when the firm took on this newest venture and immediately removed Quiznos from the moniker. The race’s resulting name, the USA Pro Cycling Challenge is clunky, for sure; more importantly, it’s not tied to one sponsor, per se, making it more attractive to a wider base of smaller companies looking for media exposure and firm place within a sport that has continued to grow, despite it all.
Stephen Lloyd Wood is a freelance journalist and a former staff editor at the Vail Daily. A two-time U.S. national cycling champion, as well, he covered professional cycling in the mid-1990s as European correspondent for VeloNews.
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