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Red Zinger/Coors Classic DVD Release Party
 
By Staff
Date: 1/13/2007
Red Zinger/Coors Classic DVD Release Party
 

Red Zinger/Coors Classic DVD Release Party
Inside the reunion and party of the launch of the DVD of the races that helped launch a generation of American pro cyclists.

By Dana Albert

Crickets. I should have expected this.
It’s early December, 2006, and I’ve traveled to Boulder, Colorado for a party celebrating the release of the Red Zinger / Coors Classic DVD collection. Michael Aisner, director of the Red Zinger and Coors Classic bicycle races from 1979 through 1988, has picked me up from the airport, and on the way to his house we stop to run an errand. Zilla, his pet lizard, has run out of crickets.


The Red Zinger / Coors Classic DVD. Autographs sold separately.”
Photo c. Dana Albert.

This is totally fitting, because the first association I ever had with the Coors International Bicycle Classic, in 1984, involved just such an errand. I was walking home from school when suddenly this red car swooped toward me and I thought I was being run over by a lunatic. Close: it was my friend Dave Towle, who was an intern at the Coors Classic office. His boss, Kay Groeneveld, had loaned him her car to run some errands. Our first stop was to get crickets for Michael’s frog. Next stop was buying a mouse, which would meet its death, by snake, later that afternoon. I don’t know what fascinated me more: watching tiny animals get eaten alive, or seeing the amazing array of cycling caps, bottles, jerseys, and other race paraphernalia that decorated the race headquarters. As I would come to learn, the race office was as strange and exciting as the race it produced.

I muse over these memories at Michael’s house on the morning of the DVD release party. We’re making sure we can operate the projector that will show a twenty-minute race highlights video. As soon as I get the video working, I’m immediately sucked in by the footage. Michael tries to shift my attention back to the task at hand, but I’m completely distracted. The twenty years that have passed between present day and what I’m seeing on the screen have vanished. The DVD is a time machine, and the sheer spectacle of the Coors Classic has astonished me all over again.

Honestly, I’d half expected to be under-whelmed by the DVD: who wouldn’t be jaded by years of extensive footage of the Tour de France? But any misgivings about the Coors Classic vanish when I start to watch. The quality of the event, the passion visible in the greatest racers of their day, the unmistakable look of the race, with its stylish banners and big red hanging signs, the podium and who’s on it—they swell the race right back up to the size it had when I saw it live in Boulder every summer as a kid. This video burns bright, capturing how this race ignited the sport of cycling in the United States.

The video isn’t the only thing that brings me back to the race days of the 80s. Though most of the relics of the original race office (which was run out of the lower level of Michael’s home) have been moved to University Bicycles in downtown Boulder, where tonight’s party will be hosted, some choice items have stayed here.

I flip through a closet devoted entirely to old jerseys, and Michael and I puzzle over which of the Tour de France Best Young Rider white jerseys went with which rider. Finally we have it: Peugeot was Phil Anderson (1982); La Vie Claire was Andy Hampsten (1986); and 7-Eleven was Raul Alcala (1987). Anderson was the first non-European to win that jersey, but his achievement was no flash in the pan. For the next six-year stretch, only one European won the maillot blanc (Fignon in ’83). Anderson and all the others—LeMond, Fabio Para, Andy Hampsten, and Raul Alcala—had two things in common:
1. They weren’t European, and
2. They got their start in the Coors Classic.


Tour de France Best Young Rider jerseys from Coors Classic alumni
Photo c. Dana Albert

In a sense, I got my own start in the Coors Classic. Not as a racer (I was too young and not fast enough to race in it myself) but as an individual. My work with this race as a teenager took my life in a new and wonderful direction. Savoring old memories, I stroll into Michael’s old office. more a museum now than anything- and the selection of race souvenirs there brings me right back to my teen years. Bike race stuff: caps, bottles, posters - were the first objects I ever collected, even before I followed in Dave Towle’s footsteps and became an intern at the race office.


Michael’s unofficial museum captures the feel of the old race office.
Photo c. Dana Albert

Coors Classic as starting point: this idea is asserted in several speeches at the DVD release party. Mo Siegel describes how the whole point of the original Red Zinger race was to get people into bicycling - not just racing but cycling as a way of staying in shape and driving less. Michael’s speech underscores the way this race launched people’s careers, and in many cases, their very lives, as many people met their spouses through the race. Davis Phinney begins his speech by referring to the assembled people as family, describing how he really did grow up with the race.

The twenty-minute highlights video that Michael produced should really be released as its own disk, or be shown before mainstream theater movies (as did several of the short films featured in the DVD set). This video doesn’t focus on the most important moments of the races, but rather the moments Michael felt would be the most stirring for the hometown crowd. It features Davis Phinney and Alexi Grewal—the race’s golden boy and its outlaw. Between the two, the vibrant personality of the race is well represented.

The best part is that my brother Max and I are sitting on the floor, in front of the VIPs, and we can turn to watch their reactions to what’s happening on the screen. In one scene, Alexi Grewal, following another attempt to beat Phinney’s 7-Eleven team, has been asked if he’s frustrated. “I'm not frustrated at all, why the hell should I be frustrated!?” a clearly frustrated Grewal says to the camera. “I'm having a good time, I'm healthy, I'm as strong as I've been in years, I'm having a great time!” As laughter breaks out in the room, I whip my head around and look at real-life Grewal. He’s sheepishly grinning.

In another vignette Phinney has flatted in the Tivoli Criterium and as rain pours down gets a wheel change. Seemingly for no reason, Jim Ochowicz lets the air out of Phinney’s rear tire. Surely he has meant only to slightly decrease the pressure to improve traction in the rain, but perhaps the valve has stuck. Phinney, amped up on criterium adrenaline, is livid and repeatedly shouts, “What are you doing?!” I look over my shoulder at Phinney: his puzzled expression seems to ask, “Yeah, what was that all about? Why was he letting the air out of my tire?” Then he grins, and I turn back to the screen: it’s the end of that rainy criterium, and—his puncture behind him—Phinney wins again!


Michael Aisner & Davis Phinney at the DVD release party.
Photo c. Dana Albert

There’s a powerful cumulative effect of the speeches tonight and the short video: together, they drive home the point that the Red Zinger / Coors Classic was, for all involved, the beginning of great things. For Phinney, Andy Hampsten, Ron Kiefel, Jeff Pierce, and others, this race nurtured their development into world class professional cyclists. For Michael Aisner, it was the beginning of a varied career involving marketing, public relations, and documentary filmmaking. But whatever anybody in this room went on to achieve, this race was not just a launch pad, it was like a rocket. Being here this evening must be what it’s like when the founders of a hugely successful corporation get together to look back on their early days as a startup.

The day I wandered in to the Coors Classic race office and offered to help out, I was fifteen and didn’t even know the term “intern.” All I knew was that my friend Dave and my brother Max had worked there for free, which must have been a good deal for everybody, and I figured the race promoters might do something like that again. But I worried: what should I wear to such an interview? I settled on a cycling World Championships sweatshirt, thinking it would give me cycling cred. I realized only when I got there that it had shrunk in the wash: the sleeves only came down to my elbows. A late bloomer, I looked about twelve; the sweatshirt probably took me down to ten. It didn’t end up mattering.

The interview took about thirty seconds:
Dana: “Hi, uh, remember me, Dave’s friend, Max’s little brother, I’ve been here a few times? Um, I can type really fast and wondered if I could, uh, volunteer here. For free.”
Michael: “How often?”
Dana: “Well, whatever you need.”
Michael: “Afternoons?”
Dana: “Sure, uh, yeah!”
Michael: “Can you start tomorrow?”

I recount this dialog because it was probably one of the most important afternoons of my life. It marked the first time I had ever done something on my own initiative, outside my comfort zone. Until that point, life had looked to me like a simple matter of keeping my grades up and my nose out of trouble.

An interview that was uncomfortable yet effective was a fitting way to start my race office days, because from that point forward it was more of the same. On my first day Michael asked me if there was any task I didn’t feel comfortable doing and would rather not be assigned. With a huge sense of relief I told him I was lousy on the phone. I was a shy kid, and the telephone compounded my shyness. Just calling, say, a bike shop to get a price quote was almost more than I could bear. My voice, choked off by anxiety, would become thin and reedy, and I often had to repeat myself. My awareness of how I sounded made me even more uncomfortable, so every phone call was a vicious cycle of self-loathing. I was so happy to have my phobia respected.

Only, it wasn’t. I didn’t yet know Michael well enough to spot a trick question when I heard one. He immediately loaded me up with a series of terrifying phone calls. The only thing more terrifying than making them was letting down my new employer. So I did as I was told. The first call was to a pub in Dublin. I was to ask (by name) for the director of the Irish national cycling team, and find out which Irish racers were coming out for the Coors Classic. To my surprise, the director was in fact at the pub, and he got on the phone. But there was all this background noise, and the guy had this thick brogue, and though I did manage to get the names, I was a complete wreck afterward.

But before I could even recover, Michael assigned me another call. I was to call this woman and look into some administrative matter. The trouble was, the woman couldn’t seem to hear me. “You’ll have to speak up, I can’t hear you,” she said. Fair enough - I hadn’t spoken very loudly. I tried again.
“I still can’t hear you,” she said. My anxiety rising, it became harder and harder to speak up. I kept trying, my voice becoming a loud but pathetic croak, and still the woman said she couldn’t hear me. So now here I was, yelling into the phone at a complete stranger! Finally she said, “Look, this just isn’t working out. We’re going to have to call it off.” I’d have been relieved when she hung up, except I still had to report back to Michael.

“Well, what did she say?” he asked. I told him, “She couldn’t hear me.” He was taken aback. “What do you mean, she couldn’t hear you?’ I said, “That’s what she said, she couldn’t hear me. She must’ve been half-deaf or something. She finally said it wasn’t working out and we should call it off.” Michael burst out laughing. “‘Wasn’t working out?’” he said. He went around the office telling this crazy story about the new guy being told his phone call wasn’t working out. He wasn’t hard on me, he didn’t ball me out or anything, but of course I felt ridiculous. And I was ridiculous. Looking back, I wonder if it that whole call wasn’t just a setup, designed to instructively humiliate me.

If so, it worked. In the months that followed, as I heard those around me making calls all day, and especially when I heard Michael, with his deejay voice and his masterful poise, calling all around the world all day long, I realized I wasn’t going to have a productive life if I didn’t master this simple tool. And my race office colleagues really helped me lighten up. For example, an office-wide debate about the true meaning of “stat” resulted in one of the staff, Joan Wood, making a call to a hospital: “I have a question for you. When you say ‘stat,’ I know it means ‘right away,’ but where does that word come from?” This wasn’t a lesson in phone skills per se; it was a lesson in moxie. There was no shortage of moxie in that office.

Not that I realized the growth benefits of this job at the time. I was working there just because it was a blast. My supervisor, Laurel van Driest, had a great instructive style. My first mail-merge, in the word processing program WordStar, required mastery of a Byzantine array of weird codes, including what Laurel called “a soft-bash return.” I asked if “soft bash” was the real term. “No, it’s just what I call it,” she replied. “Do you have a better name for it?” I didn’t. One day she assigned me a project and said, “When you’re done, put it on my desk with a note.” I asked what the note should say. She replied, “How about ‘Here’s the document, Laurel?’” I said, “Does it have to say that? That seems sort of obvious.” Without missing a beat, she came back, “No, of course it doesn’t have to say that. It can say whatever. You could write ‘Here’s the frog, Barb.’” So that’s what I did, that day and thereafter. In fact, to this day I am occasionally unable to resist using “Here’s the frog, Barb.” Of course, my colleagues have come to expect such things.

Everybody in the office, frankly, was a bit wacky. That place buzzed with activity and the shorthand that comes from intelligent people working together well without any pretensions of corporate reserve. There were two main phone lines, 499-BIKE and 499-FROG, and both were shared with fax machines. Countless times a day somebody or other would bellow through the office, “FAXING ON FROG!”

On any given day, any American cycling celebrity might stop in. I fondly remember working with Alexi Grewal, mere months after he won the gold in the ’84 Olympics, to make a birthday card for Davis Phinney. My job was to help literally paste together a picture of Phinney winning a stage of the Tour de France. In those days, such a thing seemed like a big joke, and of course the Phinney picture was taken from the Coors Classic archives. (I wouldn’t have predicted then that Phinney would actually win a Tour stage not long after.) Another time Andy Hampsten was hanging out, and Michael invited me to have dinner with them. Was I ever stoked. (We went to the Harvest, a pure-Boulder health food restaurant, where Hampsten astounded me by eating a dinner of yogurt, oatmeal, and fruit—how could anybody ride that fast with so little fuel?)

I don’t remember nearly as much about school as I do about that job. Some evenings, when thousands of envelopes needed stuffing, I’d stay late and they’d order in food from Penguino’s, a place whose delivery car was an old ambulance. Of course they’d choose the place with the ambulance! And I remember how one week the snake went missing. I seem to remember it was a big snake, and I was a bit nervous about it. The others were nervous too, but only because they worried for the snake. This became obvious to me only when the snake finally turned up. I spied it hanging from the ceiling right over Kay’s head. I said, “Hey Kay, look up.” She looked up. I was so ready to relish in her freak-out, but all she said was, “Oh, there’s the snake!” She held up her arm and it slid right down to her.

I don’t know how well the full-time staff were paid, but the perks were killer. There was an Official Race everything. We had Official Race shoes, shirts, tea, sunscreen, even honey. Yes, honey: a company called Honeyville send a giant box of it one day. Michael handed it around. “Official Race Honey?” Joan protested. “I thought I was the official race honey!” One day I scored double: Official Race Shampoo and a glass Coors mug. I had no backpack so I tied the swag around my waist with a sweatshirt before pedaling home. “Be careful,” Michael cautioned. “Can you imagine if you crashed? The EMTs would show up and be like, ‘What the hell happened here? All this broken glass, and blood, and what’s this slime?’”

Perhaps the most formative part of that job was traveling with the race in 1985, which started in California for the first time that year. I rode out with the crew in one of the race caravan trucks. We got to San Francisco in a couple of days, and I got a room in the college dorms where they were housing not only race officials, media, and construction crews, but also the racing teams: coaches, managers, racers, and mechanics. We’d arrived a couple days before the race started, and I didn’t have a lot to do the first day, so I did some sightseeing. This was the first time I’d been anywhere without my family, and it was exhilarating. I got completely lost, by myself, in this strange and slightly intimidating big city, marveled at the juxtaposition of expensive cars and homeless people, saw the millings-around of city folk on a typical workday, was completely flabbergasted upon seeing Tai Chi for the first time, and by the end of the day had made up my mind to move to California right after high school. (Which in fact I did.)

That Coors Classic road trip also presented a problem, though: my mom had given me only $100 for food, and it had to last two weeks. So wherever possible I had to score free food. At the dorms this meant tagging along with the Irish team, pretending to be one of them. I doubt it was a convincing ruse, but the cafeteria workers didn’t bat an eye. A couple days later I got my official race credential, with a green sticker on the back. Many towns served free meals to race staffers, and green dot was my meal ticket. I miss that green dot. Many of the adults I worked with were amazed at how much I could eat; one construction worker would always sing, “He’s a maniac, maaaaaa-niac!”

This was of course the closest vantage point I’d ever seen the race from. I had front-row seats, on the announcer’s platform no less, for the spectacular crash in the last corner of the Reno Twilight Criterium on the last lap. I remember leaning way out to see the pack come through that corner, and being astonished as several racers slid through on their sides. A few of them piled right over the snow fencing into the crush of spectators. In the aftermath of that crash, a kid staggered out from behind the fence with the perfect grease-print of a chain and the teeth of a chainring on his forehead. Amazingly, he wasn’t hurt; after checking him out, the course marshal sent him over to Davis Phinney, winner of the stage, for an autograph.

Back to 2006 and the DVD party: after the highlights video, everybody mills around collecting, or signing, autographs. It turns out that requesting an autograph is a great ice-breaker. Imagine how easy cocktail parties would be if everyone greeted one another with “I’m a huge fan of yours.” Tonight, I’m struck by two things about the racers: one, how friendly and approachable they are, and two, how fit and healthy and young they look.

Alexi Grewal says some surprising things. I tell him I’ve always admired not just his racing, but also his iconoclasm. He mulls this over for awhile. “What do you mean by iconoclasm?” he asks. I recount the interview he did with Michael after his victory in the ’84 Olympic road race, and how with one lap to go he passed Eddie B, with whom he’d famously clashed in those days, and said, “You better watch out because I’m going for it.” Grewal tells me that he actually never said this. “I sure thought it, though,” he says. Now, wait a second. If he thought it, and was reported to have said it, how could he not have actually said it? I ask if he was astonished to beat Steve Bauer, a famously gifted sprinter, for the win. “Naw,” he says. “In that race, the other Americans were the only ones who could have beaten me.” I find this astonishing. Some part of me never believed Americans could beat Europeans at their own sport, and, eleven American Tour de France wins later, I’m still somehow skeptical.


Alexi Grewal obliges a fan; to his right is Ron Kiefel.
Photo c. Dana Albert

I make my way over to Ron Kiefel and ask him something I’ve wondered about for twenty years: when the first American pro team went over to Europe, and immediately had great results, were they surprised? I sure was. I remember being in the race office when a big race result would come back, like Kiefel’s Giro d’Italia stage win. Everybody was ecstatic, and perhaps I mistook, at that time, simple ebullience for surprise or disbelief. But Kiefel tells a different story. “We know when we went over that we were up to it. Our success in the Coors Classic and at the Olympics showed us we were ready. We were happy with our results, of course, but not really surprised. Of course the Giro stage win was special for me, but we knew going in that we were capable of succeeding at that level.”

As I talk to other American cycling champions at the party—Andy Hampsten, Marianne Martin (first winner of the women’s Tour de France), and Jeff Pierce - this confidence, this sense of entitlement, comes up again and again. I suppose it’s the mark of a true champion that he bases his expectation on his own ability, not on the status quo that he’s out to trash. For an American to win right away at a European sport, in Europe, does seem possible if you believe that the U.S. racing scene really was effective as a crucible for producing hardened athletes.

Later on I ask Michael Aisner about his response to success of that first American team in Europe. His response echoes Kiefel’s:
“I don't remember being aghast at the Americans’ success, I just think it was a revelation to us because on our turf we knew how competitive they were, but now here they were in a race, on a continent, where they were the minority. You'd have your Italians come over [to the Coors Classic] and your French come over, and I wasn't sure whether they were coming over just to see America, or for vacation; and for me, the Americans’ success in Europe validated what they'd done over here. So that's what that was, a validation. An important one, because this was the Coors Classic coming into its own, an event alongside the others that the competitors treated with respect.”

This DVD release party isn’t just a bunch of reminiscing and nostalgia, though there’s nothing wrong with that. For me, it’s really the setting for a modest epiphany about the birth of American cycling on an international scale, and the importance of the Coors Classic, which I’d never fully grasped before. Suddenly the white jerseys in Michael’s closet no longer seem a curious anomaly, but a serious shift in the sport. Those five non-European Maillot Blanc winners, case-hardened by the Coors Classic, put their own stamp on old Europe by audaciously winning there.

It’s easy to see how the Coors Classic helped launch a generation of American pro cyclists. It’s less obvious, but I’m equally convinced, that my involvement in this race was just as important to my life. This reunion, as an occasion for reflection, helps me fully appreciate how much that experience gave me. Where would I be now had I grown up in New York (which was my family’s original plan)? No cycling, no race office job, none of these wild and amazing and inspirational people. I could be a pudgy, pasty, cautious and cerebral person, still afraid to talk on the phone, maybe sipping Chablis at a convention of lepidopterists. Yikes! So, to Boulder, to Michael Aisner, to the whole assembled crew of race office staff and to my cycling heroes, I say: thank you.
 

 
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