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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: The “premature” Tour of America, and a Phinney first

  • By John Wilcockson
  • Published Feb. 10, 2006

By John Wilcockson

Phinney wins in Baltimore

Photo: Courtesy of John Hamilton

When American professional road cycling was in its formative years in the early 1980s (see “Inside Cycling,” February 3, 2006), two of the first events to be sanctioned by the U.S. Professional Racing Organization were the USPRO Criterium Championship and the Tour of America. The first championship race, held with limited success in June 1982 at Baltimore, Maryland, was due to be repeated 12 months later, while the ambitiously titled stage race was set to debut in mid-April that same year on a route between Virginia Beach and Washington, DC. Both events announced $100,000 purses — which was a big deal when the total prize list of that year’s Tour de France was only $245,000.

Tour of America
At the time, I was the editor of a British magazine Cyclist Monthly and the cycling correspondent for The Times of London. Both publications were interested in my covering the first Tour of America, while I also reported the race for my magazine’s sister weekly, Cycling. I even obtained the go-ahead to do a live radio broadcast from the race for the BBC World Service.

The interest was so high in this “historic sporting event” because America was being talked about as the new frontier of pro cycling, and this was the first major professional stage race in North America since Canada’s defunct Tour de la Nouvelle-France was held in 1971 and ’72 (both won by Belgian pro Guido Reybrouck). Many of the world’s top pros were slated to appear at the April 1983 Tour of America, including multi-Tour de France champion Bernard Hinault (who was eventually the official starter before flying home to compete in Paris-Roubaix the same weekend).

The event was promoted by New York-based World Tour Cycling, in cooperation with the Société du Tour de France. Tour boss Félix Lévitan was the technical adviser and his deputy in France, Richard Marillier, was the race director here. WTC’s Rob Ingraham was the U.S. race coordinator.

In the end, 55 European-based professionals took part in the race along with 20 riders on North American squads: national amateur teams from Canada and the United States, a USPRO national team and a 7-Eleven pro team (headed by Canadian Ron Hayman and Belgian Noël Dejonckheere).

When the Tour of America was first announced in November 1982, the title sponsor was said to be the French bicycle industry consortium, Cycles France, whereas French auto manufacturer Peugeot — then a significant player in the North American market — was eventually announced as the lead sponsor. Mainly because it supplied all the team and official vehicles for the race.

Wherever the money came from to put on the three-day, four-day race, it was well received by the American media. Reporters from the Washington Post and New York Times covered the race. Times sportswriter George Vecsey wrote: “For [the European pros] to appear in America for a $100,000 race over three days had touches of the first American baseball team visiting Japan and the first flight of the Beatles to appear on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ …”

Having seen first-time stage races experience road-closure problems in Britain and Europe, I was impressed enough with the first-class road conditions, particularly on the opening stage, to write in Cycling: “The Norfolk-Portsmouth tunnel was completely closed to other traffic for the first time in its history to allow the race to pass through. This was just one instance of the amazing cooperation of the 20 different jurisdictions through which the race passed.”

The American spectators were surprisingly knowledgeable, and came out in their thousands, cheering the racers and waving banners, particularly on the hilly stage 2 finishing circuit in Richmond, Virginia, despite heavy rainfall. That course looped through a historic neighborhood of white-painted Colonial-style houses, climbed the cobblestones of Shockoe Slip and finished uphill on Ninth Street outside the state capitol.

On the other hand, American cycling insiders weren’t happy with the Gallic-heavy race organization, in which even the countdown in the time-trial stage was “cinq … quatre … trois … deux … un … partez.” Among the race followers was Michael Aisner, the promoter of the country’s most successful (amateur-sanctioned) stage race, the Coors Classic, who commented, “The whole French element needs to be cut back. The official language on the race radio was French — absolutely absurd!”

No more enthusiastic about this aspect of the race was Jim Ochowicz, the manager of the 7-Eleven team. He told VeloNews, “This is a French race as far as I’m concerned.”

The race itself was dominated by what were then two of Europe’s top pro teams, TI-Raleigh and Peugeot-Shell. The opening stage to Williamsburg was taken in a mass sprint by Peugeot’s Francis Castaing; the next morning’s rainy stage to Richmond went in a two-man break to TI-Raleigh’s Leo Van Vliet (a few days after he won the Ghent-Wevelgem classic); and the afternoon’s crucial 15km time trial in Richmond National Battlefield Park, was won by TI-Raleigh’s Bert Oosterbosch from Peugeot’s Phil Anderson — who went on to finish 1-2 on GC.

The only bouquet to escape the Euro teams was the fourth and final stage from Fredericksburg that finished on Constitution Avenue in the national’s capital. In a wild field sprint, 7-Eleven’s Hayman showed that the North Americans were not out of their depth by taking a great stage win from Italian sprinter Silvestro Milani of Bottecchia.

That final stage was broadcast live to a national television audience, with CBS employing two helicopters that hovered over the peloton as it circled the Mall, right outside the White House. Security clearance was difficult back then; it would no doubt be impossible in today’s post-9/11 political climate.

In the next day’s Washington Post, reporter Paul Hodge wrote: “As riders gathered last night at a hotel near the White House, preparing to take a charter flight back to France at midnight and taking a few final spins around Washington on their bikes, almost all apparently were delighted to have come.”

Baltimore drew a strong field.

Photo: Courtesy of John Hamilton

USPRO Criterium Championship
A half-dozen riders who crossed the Atlantic in April for the Tour of America returned two months later for the 2nd USPRO Criterium Championship in. As in 1982, the event was co-promoted by Baltimore NBC affiliate, WMAR-TV, which gave the race 90 minutes of live, local coverage.

Crowds were thicker for this second edition, which took place on a baking hot summer’s day adjacent to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. One reason for the increased turnout was the larger representation of American riders thanks to the Coors Classic being moved to a later date. Of particular attraction were the national amateur teams of the United States (headed by prolific winner David Phinney) and Canada (whose Steve Bauer was fresh off winning the Memorial Day classic Tour of Somerville in New Jersey).

Even so, the North American amateurs were not given much hope of contending against the European pro teams that included Renault-Gitane’s budding French stars Charly Mottet and Laurent Fignon (who would win the Tour de France the following month) and a Peugeot-Shell contingent headed by Irishman Stephen Roche (another future Tour winner) and Australian Allan Peiper (who finished sixth at the Tour of America).

With an unprecedented prize list being offered for the 100km race — far more than that offered in the spring classics — most of the European-based riders secretly decided to band together. They hoped to snaffle the first three prizes of $25,000, $15,000 and $10,000, and then split the cash between them.

Phinney leads Bauer through a turn

Photo: Courtesy of John Hamilton

Their plan looked promising when two of Europe’s best kermesse circuit racers, Belgian Ferdi Van den Haute (La Redoute-Motobecane) and Belgian-based Peiper, went away in a promising four-man break, with Phinney and Bauer, less than a half-hour into the race.

“Every race it seems that when the pace gets going we find each other in the breakaway,” the Canadian said about him and Phinney. “It’s not that we follow each other too much, it’s just that we read the crits really well.”

“On this type of course you have to be careful through a lot of the corners and that favored our small group,” said Phinney, who bridged solo to the break on the 2.4km Baltimore circuit.

The two North American amateurs then did most of the work to establish a winning margin, particularly in the final hour when the 85-degree temperatures and blazing sunshine really affected Van den Haute and Peiper. “In Europe we’ve had four weeks of rain, and it’s been cold every day,” said Peiper. “The first 20 laps [here] I couldn’t breathe.”

With the quartet taking a minute’s lead into the final lap, the estimated 80,000 spectators were rooting for Phinney. And they weren’t disappointed. After a weary Peiper led out the sprint (but “teammate” Van den Haute was even wearier), Phinney burst through in the last 100 meters and held on to beat a fast-closing Bauer by half a bike length.

In his recent book, “A Peiper’s Tale,” the Aussie cyclist wrote: “Eddy Merckx was [in Baltimore] watching, and afterwards he came over to me and Van den Haute and asked us how we’d let these two amateur beat us. He was very upset….”

Bauer was thrilled though. He commented to the press, “We proved it today that Davis and I could motor away from a field of pros. So it’s not far off that the U.S. and Canada are going to get together on professional racing.”

.. and gets the title.

Photo: Courtesy of John Hamilton

At the same time, Phinney told VeloNews, “I will be a professional some day.” Two decades later, his eyes wide with excitement as he recalled that Baltimore, Phinney told me at a dinner in Boulder, “It was great beating the European pros. Because I was an amateur, I was only allowed to keep $200 of the first-prize check. But the [U.S. Cycling] Federation banked it for me, and returned it — with interest — when I turned pro after the ’84 Olympics.”

But that’s another story….

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