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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: The controversial 1982 world’s

  • By John Wilcockson
  • Published May. 16, 2005

By John Wilcockson

When Greg LeMond and Jonathan Boyer became teammates on Renault-Gitane at the start of 1981, there were expectations that America’s top two riders would form a winning alliance. But their contrasting personalities and different styles of racing saw them grow apart rather than connect. Although Boyer was the first American to ride the Tour with Renault that year, he soon moved with another American, John Eustice, to Sem-France Loire, a French team led by Irish star Sean Kelly.

At the same time, LeMond established himself as the heir apparent to Bernard Hinault at Renault. After winning the Coors Classic in 1981, the blond, 21-year-old Californian began his second pro season in a blaze of top finishes: second at the Mediterranean Tour, third at the Tour of Corsica, third at Tirreno-Adriatico (including a stage win). He was too young for the Tour de France, but he was designated the Renault team leader for the young rider’s version of La Grande Boucle, the Tour de l’Avenir, which would take place right after the September 1982 world championships — so LeMond came into the world’s with the benefit of his training for the 10-day stage race.

Boyer, meanwhile, followed a similar path to the one that took him to fifth place at the 1980 world’s in France: a major tour (in this case the Tour de France), followed by specific altitude training. Both he and LeMond would wear the same USPRO national team jersey at the world’s in Goodwood, England, but no one expected them to act as teammates.

USPRO named a nine-man team (just about the only Americans who didn’t have a U.S. Cycling Federation amateur license), but only six showed up in Goodwood, partly because they had to pay their own way. USPRO was a fledgling organization with few members and no real funds. Boyer knew he could rely on the help of Sem teammate Eustice, while LeMond had greater affinity with Italian-based George Mount and two U.S.-based riders, Texan David Mayer-Oakes and Eric Heiden (who was testing himself in cycling after his 1980 Olympic gold-medal rampage in speed skating).

The world championship course was based on the motor-racing track at Goodwood in southeast England’s Sussex County. The pros would cover 18 laps of the 15.285km (9.5-mile) circuit for a distance of 275km (171 miles). The start-finish was atop the so-called South Downs, a range of low hills paralleling the English Channel coast. The course ran along the ridge for a couple of miles, then turned right down a winding descent between beech trees to a loop around the Goodwood racecourse before heading to the only climb — which was essentially the final 2km, with a steepest pitch of around 10 percent preceding the 1km-to-go mark followed by a gradually ascending finish straight.

It was expected to be a sprinter’s course, although 18 times up the hill would limit the number of fast men who’d be left to contest the finish. Among those expected to be in at the kill were Boyer’s trade-team leader Kelly (whose only Irish teammate was a youthful Stephen Roche); Italy’s Giuseppe Saronni (who had narrowly lost the previous year’s world title in Prague to Belgian sprinter Freddy Maertens); and perhaps the Spaniard Juan Fernandez.

I was very familiar with the roads in the Goodwood area, having trained around the region when I was racing and riding with the nearby Redhill Cycling Club in the 1960s and early ’70s. It was always a pleasure to take winter club runs through this beautiful area, on usually quiet back roads like those on the world’s course. It’s an area steeped in British road-racing lore, and hundreds in the big crowds of spectators were club racers from Sussex, Surrey, and the other counties surrounding London, which is only 50 or so miles to the north of Goodwood.

September 5, 1982, was a sultry day with not much wind to disrupt the 136 professionals who started the 18-lap race. There were plenty of attacks, but the powerful Italian squad (which also contained stars Moreno Argentin, Francesco Moser and Pierino Gavazzi) pretty much controlled the race in expectation of a strong finish by Saronni, a rider similar to today’s Italian star Danilo Di Luca.

As the Italians hoped, the pack dwindled to about 35 riders by the time they circled the motor racetrack for the final time and headed toward the climb to the finish. Saronni (who is now the team manager of Damiano Cunego’s Lampre-Caffita formation) still had six teammates with him, while Boyer and LeMond were the only Americans left in the lead group (the only other U.S. finisher would be Mount, who placed 52nd, six minutes down).

The Italians kept the tempo incredibly high on the flat roads preceding the hill, with Moser and Gavazzi the last ones protecting Saronni before he unleashed his infamous finishing burst.

The highly astute Boyer knew that the only chance he had of medaling was to attack in the brief transitional moments after Saronni’s helpers had hopefully spent most of their energy and before any of Saronni’s rivals were prepared to lead out the final sprint. And that’s what he did. Boyer accelerated (he didn’t have a dynamic jump) at the foot of the climb, before its steepest stretch, and gained perhaps five seconds.

This was a first for American cycling: a U.S. rider attacking in the final of a world pro championship. Boyer may have believed that his was a winning move, but most of the seasoned race followers saw the American’s effort as a prelude to the real battle for the rainbow jersey that was about to be unveiled.

Perhaps it was unfortunate that the first salvo in that battle was launched by LeMond, who knew that against superior sprinters Saronni and Kelly his only hope of winning was to get clear on the hill’s steepest pitch, before the final kilometer. And so it was LeMond, with the animated Saronni on his shoulder, who was the first to close on Boyer and continue straight past in his bid to take gold.

If it hadn’t been for the Italian team’s superior numbers and firepower, LeMond might well have won the title, but Saronni was still incredibly fresh. And as the finish banner appeared through the trees at the top of the winding road to the ridge-top, the Italian unleashed a furious sprint. He immediately gapped LeMond, whom Kelly was now chasing with his own belated effort.

Saronni had all the time in the world to savor his triumph, looking back to see that neither LeMond nor Kelly was gaining, before coasting across the line, his arms pointing high, five seconds ahead of LeMond, seven seconds ahead of third-placed Kelly, and 10 seconds clear of the next seven finishers, who were lined out behind 1980 Tour de France winner Joop Zoetemelk.

At the end of this line, in 10th place, came Boyer. As he wearily pedaled toward the U.S. team’s pit area, Boyer weaved a way through the mob of media people trying to gets some words out of the jubilant Saronni, and past the group of excited American team officials, riders and journalists surrounding LeMond.

While they celebrated the first-ever pro world’s medal for a U.S. cyclist, Boyer was near tears. He felt that LeMond had betrayed him. He felt that a teammate (even in the loosest sense of the word) should not have been the one to close the gap on him after his attack on the final climb.

I can’t remember exactly what I wrote in the magazine I was editing at the time — a British start-up called Cyclist Monthly that later morphed into Cycle Sport — but 23 years later I’m certain that Boyer’s chance of turning that attack into a winner was as remote as the South Pole.

The one positive result for American cycling, besides LeMond’s breakthrough silver medal, was the emotion stirred up by LeMond’s controversial move “against” Boyer in the finale. It showed that U.S. fans were just as passionate about their sport as the Europeans.

And it’s that sort of passion that LeMond would stir up in abundance as he took American cycling toward its most exciting period in history….

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