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The 1981 Coors Classic
By Staff
Date: 8/15/2003
The 1981 Coors Classic

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 if?

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 game.

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.

Dave Towle

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