On the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas, Mexico’s current elite time trial champion sat in a hotel room, watching the Super Bowl and recovering from an early season crit held close by.
“It was cold, and I wasn’t going too well. For the last two weeks I haven’t trained much, and was cramping up a bit,” confided the racer from Monterrey, just a five-hour drive away.
One could easily assume that the Mexican champ would be a young hopeful, trying hard to break into the NRC and earn himself a contract or a trial ride with one of the American teams, but no, this guy’s fast approaching his 47th birthday, and it was more than a quarter-of-a-century ago that this particular Mexican ace first took the route into the U.S. in search of that breakthrough, and he did it.
His name? Raul Alcala.
The L.A. Olympics of 1984 were huge for American cycling, not just for riders in the U.S. Sure enough the Eastern Block nations had boycotted the Games, and who knows what the outcome of the men’s road race would have been if they had been there. But what is certain is that it was a day that started to flip the old Euro’ dominated culture of road racing flat on its back.
The grand finale was a thrilling duel between the USA’s Alexi Grewal and Canadian Steve Bauer, with the Colorado racer coming home to claim the first – and, thus far, only – ever Olympic men’s road race gold by an American. Not only that; there were three more U.S. riders in the top-ten (Davis Phinney 5th, Thurlow Rogers 6th and Ron Kiefel 9th). It was the dawn of a new era in world cycling.
Finishing in 11th spot in Los Angeles was a then 20-year-old Alcala, who two years later would join forces with these Americans who finished in front of him in L.A. to form the fledgling 7-Eleven team, an audacious effort that shook up cycling’s old order by taking the start in the 1986 Tour de France.
That first Tour
In that first Tour, Canadian rider Alex Stieda took the yellow jersey on stage 1 for 7-Eleven only to lose in a disastrous team time trial on the next stage. Of course, it was an American who later went on to win that Tour, as Greg LeMond battled with his own La Vie Claire teammate, Bernard Hinault, for much of the ensuing three weeks.
The `86 Tour marked another turning point and served to affirm the role American riders would play in the world’s greatest bike race for decades to come.
Despite taking yellow for a day, the Tour was a baptism of fire for 7-Eleven, and for the 22-year-old Alcala. Remarkably, he returned the following year to take the coveted white jersey of best young rider, and to finish 9th overall in the Tour. He later bettered that with an 8th-place finish in 1989.
“It was a great experience for me; we were all young and great friends too. Maybe the white jersey (and holding the mountains jersey) are my best memories of all,” recalled Alcala, who earned two Tour de France stage victories, the overall in the 1987 Coors Classic, an overall win at the 1990 Tour de Trump and the 1992 Clásica de San Sebastián over the course of his nine years in the pro peloton.
No Mexican rider, before or since, has ever reached that level of the sport.
“It’s difficult for young Mexicans; it’s not like in Europe or Australia,” said Alcala. “The sport is not so big here, and it’s very complicated and there’s a lot of politics involved too. Plus they often have a lot of family responsibilities at home. There are guys out in Europe, but not at Pro(team) level.”
Following stints with PDM-Concorde (1990-`92) and Novell-WordPerfect (1993) Alcala returned to his old team and its new sponsor, Motorola. Alcala said he found comfort on the team that gave him his start and thought it the perfect place to wind down his pro career.
“My best memories were always with 7-Eleven,” he said. “With the European teams the atmosphere was different, and they didn’t have the same confidence in me.”
Apart from a brief outing in the 1999 Tour of Mexico (finishing 7th on GC) Alcala was thought to have slipped into retirement. But in 2008 he made a surprising return to racing.
“There are a lot of good young riders in Mexico, and I would really like to form a Mexican Continental team in the future,” Alcala said. “So, I returned to racing with them. I think they can learn from me and gain the confidence they need to progress.”
The dream of taking an all-Mexican team to Europe may seem exactly that – a dream – but, why not?
“Well, 7-Eleven did it and so did Cafe de Colombia,” Alcala suggested. “I think the system here makes it difficult, and will slow things down. But I think it could happen in two or three years, and of course, the Tour de France would be the ultimate aim. There is a lot of young talent here. It is possible.”
Meantime Alcala has been racing and training hard himself.
“I struggled at first (returning to racing), I really suffered. At the end of last year (2010) I rode the Vuelta a’ Chiapas, Guatemala and Costa Rica. I got through OK. Now I’m getting stronger and getting better form. I’ve lost a few kilos and have good muscle definition now too.”
Alcala, who turns 47 on March 3rd, has been happy to adopt modern methods to help his training.
“When I was fully pro it was just lots and lots of kilometers, and lots of racing. Now I train much less in distance, but also much more consistently. I use a PowerMeter and computers too, it’s really good for me.”.”
So where does an aging national champion take his racing from here?
“I want to do the Vuelta a’ Mexico; but my real aim is the Pan-American Games in Colombia (in May). I’d like to do well and gain UCI points to help Mexico in qualifying for the Olympics. After that, maybe I’ll race one or two more years – and work towards the new team.”
It seems there are a few old guys still rocking the roads out there, and his slightly older former teammate Alexi Grewal is making a comeback this year.
“He’s 50!” Alcala said. “That’s old, but it is possible – he’s quite a rider! Maybe when some of the other guys see that, they will come back too ….”