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Coors Classic Pioneer Michael Aisner - Part 1
By Staff
Date: 1/25/2007
Coors Classic Pioneer Michael Aisner - Part 1

Coor's Classic Pioneer Michael Aisner - Part 1
Dana Alberts interviews American race organizer pioneer and public relations superman Michael Aisner. Michael discusses the history of the race and growing the Red Zinger into the USA's first successful international stage race.

By Dana Albert

As I described recently in these pages, I worked for the Coors International Bicycle Classic as an intern during the mid-80s. During a recent trip to Boulder for a Red Zinger/Coors Classic reunion, I sat down with the race’s director, Michael Aisner, to talk about the history of the stage race that put cycling on the map in the U.S.

Race director Michael Aisner with his pet lizard, Zilla. Photo by Dana Albert.

Dana Albert: I wasn't aware until Mo Siegel spoke at the DVD release party that you were connected with the Red Zinger race before you bought it.

Michael D. Aisner: I had just come back a seal hunt in my work with the International Fund for Animal Welfare. I was a deejay. Some guy that I knew whose wife worked at Celestial Seasonings thought it would be interesting for me to get together with Mo because he was interested in animal-related things. So he invited me to go to lunch with him one day. He had just gotten through seeing all the stuff in Time magazine and other things about the seal hunt. He said, “I'd love for you to do publicity for my bike race.” I said, “Your bike race? I don't know anything about bike racing,” and he said, “You will.” So the 1975 and 1976 Red Zingers had gone by me and I had never seen bike racing. I had probably heard about it but had no interest, I was into radio, and whatever else I was into at the time. So I went and worked on my first Red Zinger with Kay Groeneveld, and she and I formed a little PR office, and we did our best that year to get publicity in and around this thing, and we created a movie concept.

I thought, well how are we going to do this, we can't get on national TV, maybe the next best way for us to do this would be to create our own kind of exposure environment that nobody had been into before. So I said why don't we go shoot a movie, and if we create this movie, maybe we can get it into the movie theaters.
I went to Cooper Highland, a movie theater company, and they gave me five grand to peddle these prints around to their various theaters and we put the name of the chain in at the end, so they were kind of like sponsors, entitlement sponsors, and we made thirty-five or forty prints, which were very expensive, $500 or something for each one, and that was it! They were shown before “Breaking Away” and “Jaws.” We did that two years in a row. People loved it. You'd sit there and watch your town up there on the big screen. There's your downtown, your Broadway. It was a great hit for the tea company to have that kind of exposure. I mean, they were just thrilled with it.

So that was the beginning of that relationship and I got more and more involved in the race. I didn't know much about bike racing at all, so I would attend these meetings, and Robert Carpenter was there, and a number of other people, and they'd be talking about new courses they were developing, and I didn't know anything! But I kept coming up with ideas, and ideas, and ideas, and ideas, and by 1979, Moe approached me one time and said “Look, you're so involved with this thing, and so passionate, why don't you run it?”

Final Podium 1986 Bernard Hinault and Jeanie Longo

Dana: So you were pretty stoked on the sport by this time?

Michael: Oh yeah, I got the sport when I was in North Boulder Park the first time. It did not take much. It was the color, the internationalism, the excitement, the danger of it, the youth, the vulnerability of people on bicycles, with nothing but this thin layer of Lycra, the fact that they were riding on tires that were made out of silk, there was all sorts of romance to it that I hadn't really seen before. I wasn't into football, there was no romance in football. Baseball was cool to see twice a year, in the park, basketball I enjoyed very much, but that's it. I bought into the nature of what Mo was preaching, which was that if we all got on bicycles, we'd be healthier, and the environment would be healthier. Simple. This idealism is why he was into my seal work.

Dana: You were like twenty-six, twenty-seven....

Michael: Yeah, probably twenty-six or so when I took over the race. That was such a big responsibility, but it just seemed like I evolved into that role, it was right. I had connected myself with the race director of an event in England called the Milk Race whose name was Phil Liggett. He was the promoter of that bike race, we were both promoters. We got along well and he helped me in the process of knowing what worked and did not work. He became something of a mentor on how to run a bike race, as was Dave Chauner. I was the only guy in the trade who did not come up through the ranks of being on a bicycle as a competitive cyclist. There were no others. I was absolutely fresh to the sport. I didn't know what distance I could put in for a time trial, I didn't know how hard they could ride up what kind of mountain, I didn't know any of that, so all that had to come from Chauner and Liggett, for the most part, and our chief referee, Artie Greenberg. Beth Estes, was a big help too, she knew a lot about the sport.

Steve Bauer and Chris Carmichael

Dana: What led to you buying the race from Mo?

[After the ’79 race] Mo said to me, “Look, this race is costing more than our entire profits in the state of Colorado. I've got to move this thing on, it's incredibly expensive, it's paralyzing the tea company. When this thing runs in June, starting around January we start doing our bike race meetings, and our sales go down, because everybody in the tea company is only interested in running the bike race, they're not interested in selling tea! And we had all sorts of tea plans, and I can't run with those until I get this bike race out of my hair, so it needs to move out of my office.”

I mean the tea company literally came to a halt [during the race]. John Hay, Wyck Hay, Mo Siegel, all of them were key components in the execution of the race. And Mo said, “Why don't you try to get a sponsor?” Somehow I ended up at Coors and I don't remember how, and Coors had an absolutely tiny sports department, they had like one guy, they didn't even call it Sports, they called it Marketing, and they had a balloon event, they had a facsimile of the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales, and that was about it. The other breweries were probably doing not much more.


So I came along and I proposed this whole bike race concept. Peter Coors loved it. I was quadrupling my budget, I think Mo was putting in maybe 75 or 100 thousand, maybe 125 ... we actually didn't know what the race budget was because Mo would wash it through the entire company, so company time, things that were printed were being done down in their print shop, you didn't know what anything cost because I don't think any of those items were earmarked for any budget. The most obvious expense was the huge prize list—Mo had decided he was going to go out and have the biggest race he could.

Dana: So that first year it was the Coors Classic, I remember there was some grumbling about how the name of the race was supposed to stay “Red Zinger,” but then the corporate interests won out.

Michael: I actually fought to keep it the Red Zinger. That's actually interesting you bring that up. I'm thinking about this for the first time in twenty-five years. I thought, well we have this whole cachet in the Red Zinger, why can't Coors just sponsor it and we'll continue calling it the Red Zinger Bicycle Classic? Most people don't know what a red zinger is, and it's just a great name for a race. And I was scared of this thing being renamed Coors. We were worried about it because this town ... just take a snapshot of this town in 1979. I mean, this was a flaming liberal, anti-Coors, anti-union, anti-war town. Celestial Seasonings was beloved, and Coors was hated. And all of a sudden we were substituting this other sponsor that must have seemed completely inappropriate. I mean, here's this bike race, which was the epitome of all peace and ecology and everything that was good, this organic, naturally picked, blended tea, rolling over to a beer, an alcoholic beverage. So that was the first challenge we had, making this transfer to this new environment, and it went very successfully for us because this race was bigger than this question. And the media was willing to call it what it was because of the excitement of what was going on from the day the race started to the day the race ended, that was what it was about. The content.

Dana: That means Coors got a really great deal out of this.

Michael: Of course they did. I remember going down to the Left Hand Bookstore in Boulder and seeing signs printed up, “Keep the Red Zinger,” because they hated the notion it was going to Coors, but we had very little of that. In San Francisco when we went to the [Fisherman’s] Wharf, we expected to see signs all over the place, protesting it, but it just never happened. There were some protestors in some locations but they were pushed out of the way by all the ardent cycling fans who didn't want signs up between them and the racers. The protesters had no audience, no one could care less. Fans were like “It's a bike race, you idiot!” And that was it, they just went away. Mo recognized he was going to lose the Red Zinger name, he was trying to fight that too, but it was a battle we lost in a meeting in about thirty seconds. Coors appropriately said, “No, of course not, absolutely not. This thing needs to be in our name, that's what we're paying for, this is a lot of money for us.” So we were the first really big sporting event sponsored by Coors.

Related articles:
Historic DVD of Red Zinger & Coors Classic Released
Red Zinger/Coors Classic DVD Release Party

Other Dana Albert Articles:
T-Mobile Int'l: A Spectator’s Eye View by Dana Albert
2003 - Riding La Marmotte by Dana Albert
Return to La Marmotte - Part 1 Preparation
Return to La Marmotte - Part 2 Race Day
Return to La Marmotte - Part 3 Notes & Climb Profiles

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