By Dave Towle
During the summer of 1981, the USSR and the United States were at the height
of the Cold War, and I think a lot of people were amazed when Mike Aisner
brought the entire 1980 Soviet Olympic team here to race in the Coors
International Bicycle Classic, what really was North America’s premier stage
race. The race started to receive worldwide acclaim in the late 1970’s, and the
Soviets brought their top team to North America. They wanted to win, and were
well aware of the talented young American, Greg Lemond, riding for the top
professional team in the world, Renault-Elf-Gitane. I think both sides were
disappointed that politics disrupted what would have been one of the best
showdowns in Olympic road racing history, Lemond vs. the USSR. Sergei
Soukhoroutchenkov won the gold medal in Moscow, but even he had to wonder, what
Fast forward nine months later, and amazingly, and the top amateur riders in
the world had a chance to square off again, fair and square, with 9 days of
stage racing to decide who the real champion was. In the early eighties, bicycle
racing hadn’t changed much for decades, and the amateur/professional separation
was becoming a bit unclear. The top Eastern Europeans were, for all basic
purposes, professionals. They had no job, other than to train, and succeed,
racing their bikes. No pressure there, right! Lemond was feeling some pressure
too, as a neo pro, riding on a huge team, with huge expectations. Stephen Roche
was starting to deliver the goods in Europe, at about the same age, and Greg
knew this was a race he needed to start his professional palmares with. True,
Lemond was technically a pro, but, the well-oiled Soviet machine was a bit ahead
of most European based pro teams at that point. Greg’s team was very
under-matched, man for man, against a world cycling power, at the top of their
How do I fit in the picture? This is the classic fly on the wall story. The
race office for the Coors Classic was in the neighborhood where I grew up in
Boulder, and it was, by far, the “coolest” thing around. Mike and Kay ran
everything from his basement, and he lived up-stairs, in the house “section”. It
was like a museum there, so much history! Any kid who was lucky enough to get
inside, which anyone who showed interest was, became a race volunteer. Talk
about the right place at the right time. When the Soviets came, they had
everything they needed. They brought KGB, more KGB, coaches, mechanics,
therapists, and translators. What didn’t they have? A 15 year old kid, who knew
where the riding was good, the ladies partied, and the beer was cold, and I had
about 1/3 of that covered, so I was in. Honestly, I now know why, it was Mike
Aisner, looking out for me, helping connect me to something that not many kids
ever get to be a part of. I’ll always be grateful; thanks, Mike.
So, it’s July 2nd, 1981, I had just finished 9th grade, and this was going to
be one hell of a summer job! I actually was paid, which looking back on it, I
really can’t believe. The Soviet Union hadn’t competed in any international
sporting events in North America, after our 1980 boycott, until the Classic.
That brought out a huge amount of media to Stapleton International airport.
Looking back, I think the riders were a bit over-whelmed, as Denver certainly
laid out the red carpet! There were banners hanging everywhere, and I felt like
I was on the Wide World of Sports, all the time, doing one of those “hanging
around the airport with Beckham” person bits. It was really so amazingly cool to
be standing there, waiting for a massive amount of baggage to clear customs. I
didn’t really mind, as I could already sense my growing stature amongst my peer
group, the pro race team gophers...
To be honest, it was a pretty weird ride from the airport to Boulder, as I’m
sure the long trip was taking its toll on the riders. The guys drifted away, as
a lot of words were flying back and forth, between the staff. I was pretty hyped
too, and I’m sure the Soviet staff guys thought, that with one more kid like me,
they wouldn’t have to lift a finger for the rest of the trip. I unloaded all the
bikes myself, while the “staff” looked around a bit!
The only really help I got was from a mechanic, also named Yuri (two of the
riders were as well, Kasherin and Barinov) who realized I was in serious danger
of being crushed to death by his tool chest. It was a good deal for everyone,
though, as getting to touch the red Colnagos was pretty much my personal Holy
Grail! So after a good night's sleep, it was down to business.
The machine whirred into gear, the riders had their food ready to eat, and
the bikes were ready to ride, these guys were like Mapei! The fact that Mike had
a really good idea the Soviets were coming early, allowed me to spend the last
part of my day at Junior High, up at the High School, taking Russian. I had a
head start, when the floodgates opened, and the CCCP made sew-ups (which were
actually glueups, as they weren’t sewn at all); rather they used an adhesive
that NASA should’ve gotten a hold of for the Space Shuttle tile problem of the
80’s. I digress however, as anyone who was wondering if these guys were going to
be stoic communists or not, smiled in that easy way, like when you meet an old
friend. They were nice, and were really good businessmen, for the most part.
They had exploitable weaknesses, but we’ll get into that later.
The Soviets really were dialed, as far as their preparation went. The race
was going to be held at an altitude at which they almost never raced. Coming 10
days before the prologue was critical, to acclimatize. The word spread quickly
that the team was in town, and it was only the second training ride,
reconnoitering the Morgal/Bimark course, a critical, very hard, stage that would
come late in the race. There was already a group of 10 riders tagging along,
hanging just behind whoever the last Soviet was. It was funny to watch, as you
could sense the fact that the heavy hitters in the Soviet camp already wanted to
do some talking with their legs. The teams director, Vicktor Kapitanov (winner
of the gold road race medal in Rome, 1960), held the guys in check, it was the
start of their first real ride in 3 days; 6000 miles from home, 5,000 feet above
their normal riding altitude. Six hours later, they were all, to a man, fine.
The fact that these guys rode in basically a world class team time trial
formation, for that long, that hard, was something to see. This was going to be
one hell of a race, as the local cat 2 guys hung onto the Red Train, for about 2
laps, or 25 miles. After 25 miles, they blew up, hard.
That night, things started to become special. You could almost mark the July
4th fireworks show in Boulder as the point in time that the whole team decided
to embrace American culture, at least for this month. They ended up in Boulder,
Colorado, not a bad place to get a taste of what America has to offer, and
people were lining up for a chance to meet these guys, as their racing exploits
were the talk of the town, and the whole city geared up for the highlight of the
summer. That July 4th was a particularly beautiful one, and after a hard ride,
and a big dinner, they were ready to walk from the University dorms to the
stadium, about 10 minutes through one of the country's nicest campuses. The mood
was buoyant in the stadium, and when it was announced, just as it was getting
dark, that in the crowd was the Soviet Olympic Cycling team, they received a
standing ovation. It was truly moving, for everyone there, and how could they
not react warmly to that gesture? The fireworks were awesome, and everyone
seemed to be ready for a good, clean race.
I’ll be back, next week, to pick up the story, as the guys get ready for the
Flagstaff Mountain prologue, just a week away.
Thanks for reading.