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The 1981 Coors Classic: Part Five
By Staff
Date: 11/3/2003
The 1981 Coors Classic: Part Five

The 1981 Coors Classic
The 1981 Coors Classic: Part Two
The 1981 Coors Classic: Part Three
The 1981 Coors Classic: Part Four

Part Five: The Showdown at Morgul-Bismark

By Dave Towle

The Morgul-Bismark circuit, just south of Boulder, had become one of the best known, and oft praised road racing courses in North America by 1981. I wish I knew to whom to give credit for coming up with the course design. Thankfully, Michael Aisner recognized its perfection and made sure the 13 mile circut was a part of every year's Coors Classic, making it America’s equivalent of the Alpe D’Heuz as far as notoriety goes.

The course is actually named after a dog and a cat. They lived together harmoniously in Boulder during the 1970’s, back when people named road courses after things like dogs and cats. In the current era, actual road racing on the circuit doesn’t really exist anymore. Urban sprawl is a sad fact of life along the Front Range of Colorado. Looking at video of the course from 1981, when I was a 15 year old kid is a little hard to do. Knowing the place on the road where Sergei Soukhoroutchenkov dug the deepest to try to shake Greg Lemond, is now a Super Target; reminds me that Oscar Wilde was quite on point when he said “You can’t go home again”.

The circuit is unrelentingly hard over the entire 13 miles. This is mostly because of the wind. The course runs along a wicked place for about 3 miles known as Rocky Flats. The story of Rocky Flats is not one that I’ll go into here, but I will say this: every nuclear bomb built in America, after 1965 or so, used a plutonium trigger that was manufactured about 8 miles away from my elementary school. Nice, thanks a lot.

This fact was also somewhat ironic, as the massive amount of KGB agents keeping an eye on the team during the trip to America was astounding, and I’m sure that the proximity they had to the Defense Departments pride plutonium “works” plant was unnerving for the “Feds”. I never saw shoe cameras or any other “gadgets” to be concerned about, however. What was concerning for the entire field was the Soviet cycling team. They were the World's most powerful amateur squad, and they were motivated to blow the Coors Classic wide open that day.

The course has 3 climbs that are of note. In all honesty, looking at the power and speed obtained in professional racing today, this would be a sensational Worlds course, even now. The Morgul/Bismark is a rolling, unrelenting place to race, but, a strong racer would get over the infamous climbs; the “Wall.” the “Hump,” or the feed zone hill in the big ring, even late in the race. The Soviet team strategy wasn’t really all that hard for people at the race that day to identify. They sent everyone to the front, on the first climb, and just started grinding away at the field. It was going to be the most exciting day of racing in the history of the event, and you could sense that everyone who was there that day knew we were seeing something very special.

When Lemond moved himself onto the back of the “Red Locomotive,” he really seemed to be the class rider everyone back in the US had hoped he’d be. The only rider from the Soviet team who didn’t make what turned into the ultimate selection, just 15 miles into the race, was Zhakhid Zagretinov, who had been enduring some serious pain, after hitting the road with force in Vail during the criterium stage there earlier in the race.

The Morgul/Bismark circuit seemed to always have something up its sleeve. Each year the Red Zinger or Coors Classic came out to race on the course, and it had become the “Queens” stage of that year's Coors Classic. Year after year the course served up something different. Brutal heat was fairly usual, but, one of the coldest days of racing I can remember happened out there, south of Boulder. I still see the image of a rider grabbing a bottle of hot tea, then, almost going down in a heap, as the bottle slipped out of his gloved hand and hit his bike, then fell to the ground, hitting pretty hard and, of course, opening up and spilling all over the road.

These guys had suffered during this long hard 1981 Coors Classic and it, was starting to show, as the only contenders for the overall at this point in the race were four of the Russians, Lemond, and maybe George Mount, as an outsider. This was the penultimate day, and only a criterium stage in Boulder would remain. This year the race would be decided out on the hot dry plains of Colorado, in a true shoot out.

As soon as the Soviets cracked the whip and the early break formed, everyone was interested in watching what tactics the Soviets would employ. Clearly the power of numbers was theirs; with 75 hard, hot miles of racing left, they had four of the seven in what looked like the move of the race. This was it, the overall title on the line, right here right now, we all thought. Talk about high drama. Greg Lemond and Alan McCormack made the split, along with Allesandro Pozzi, who was an Italian journeyman, racing for George Mount's team.

I’m not sure if they put their noses in the wind at all that day, actually. The four Soviets were taking monster pulls (sometimes for 2 minutes). Two of the guys had won Olympic gold medals in Moscow, in the 100k team time trial, and the size of the engines the Soviets had was very impressive to everyone that was ridden off their wheels that day. The biggest name in the race, Lemond, made the break, which was huge. The crowd was overjoyed at the prospect of what was about to unfold.

Greg knew his place in this elite group. He was always sitting on the last Soviet wheel, and making sure he stayed out of their way. People were a bit surprised when the expected dirty tricks, the “hooks” and “chops,” never really came. Every now and then, a little hook would be thrown, but only if Greg was losing his focus and not leaving enough room for the Soviet team to slot in on the last wheel, after finishing a turn at the front.

It was sort of odd, visually, with Greg in the red Coors Classic leaders’ jersey that matched the Soviets all-red jerseys. “Soukho” was in blue as the KOM leader. He was wrapping up that title. At the same time as Greg was working to keep the jersey just one more day, one unbelievably hard day, which would virtually assure him of winning the overall.

The gap back to a highly under-motivated chase group was over 7 minutes and they knew the power that the lead group of seven possessed. With two more thirteen mile laps left, the proverbial towel had been thrown in. When the lead group hit the top of the “Wall”, with 2 to go on the lap cards, the bell was rung, and Mike Aisner announced a $1000 preem. Immediately, once over the top of the “Wall,” (the hardest climb on the course, and also the location of the start and finish), “Soukho” the team leader, currently in the blue KOM jersey, went back to the car to discuss strategy with team director Victor Kapitanov, Olympic gold medal winner at the road race in Rome, back in 1960. Was this it? Would Lemond get his ticket punched before they completed another lap? One thousand dollars, cash, was a huge incentive to the Soviets.

I got out of the follow van in the feed zone with 2 laps to go. The follow van was where we kept the spare wheels, which were for the team's mechanic, who was on a motorcycle, and could come back and replenish his stock if need be. We didn’t have too much trouble with flats. The guys got new tires everyday. Remember, we did have a few for sale, and the management always wanted the tires to be “showcased,” and not to become known for puncturing! I was pumped to get to help hand up bottles to the top guys in the world while my school friends watched. Not a bad day for a 15 year old bike grommet. It was hot, and getting hotter as the race wore on. Every guy in the lead group was looking for more liquid, so an extra hand in the feed zone was actually quite nice for our guys, as they all got a few bottles, which helped a lot.

Greg knew that the red train he just caught was on the way to the win, and if you weren’t in this group now, effectively, you were out of the top five for the overall. I wonder to this day if Greg thought he was going to have any matches to burn at the end, as just making the break had been so hard. I was surprised, actually shocked, when Lemond went for the $1000 lap prize with one to go, and got it!

Sergei was pissed, as he didn’t expect Lemond to break the code of ethics that the Soviets thought would ensure their receiving no challenge for the money. That was the beginning of a very dynamic lap. Now the peace treaty was over, and the attacks, covering, and counter attacking was fierce. Lemond hung on, and like a yo-yo, brought McCormack and Pozzi back with him. The Soviets stopped attacking with about five miles to go, and looked at their options. Logvin to lead out Barinov, from 500 meters out was the call, or so it sounded. Sergei was cramping, and starting to tire from the extra efforts of money hunting and KOM point procurement. Kashirin would sweep Barinov's wheel, and they looked good to go four miles out.

The harmony of the group was destroyed by McCormack on the final trip up the next to last climb, known as the “Hump”. McCormack was always an opportunist, and although his move never really had a chance and ultimately put paid to what might have been a podium spot that day (McCormack still, to this day, has a wicked sprint) it was amazing watching the tiny Irishman attacking the huge Russians, and Lemond, the greatest American ever, until Lance came along. That attack lasted all of two or three minutes, and was shut down by, you guessed it, the Soviets.

With three miles left, and temperatures now hitting 95 degrees, it came down to Lemond, Soukhorutchenkow, Barinov, Logvin, Kashirin, Pozzi, and the now spent McCormack, who had just emptied his chamber, and was left for dead once the next round of fireworks began.

Then, the Oleg Logvin felt something very bad happening to his bike. With two miles to go, just as the lead-out was being executed, his rear tire was going flat. He lost all the air very quickly, and was now useless for the sprint. It was up to Yuri Barinov to take on the American rider of the day, week, month and year at that point, Greg Lemond. The slow motion footage showed how deep they both dug.

It was hard to watch, knowing how hot it was, how dry it had been all day, the riders couldn’t get enough to drink and would cramp long and hard after this sprint. The steepness of the final 200 meters is like Taylor Street in San Francisco, probably 17 percent grade at the steepest pitch. After all the work the team had done that day, Barinov just refused to give in, for them. Yuri knew that the sprint would be his when Greg sat up at 20 meters to go. The pain for every rider there that day was immense. The day was almost too hard, as riders were unable to talk, let alone think, after they crossed the line. The blank stare of a man who went deeper than he thought he ever would….was almost sad, and certainly intense to watch as we got the guys ready for the podium, and the trip back to the dorms on the campus of the University of Colorado.

One more day of racing left in the 1981 Coors Classic. Lemond in the leader’s jersey, Soviets still the top team, with four Soviets in the top five. What a day! What a race!

I’ll be back to wrap up the race, hope you enjoyed.

Dave Towle
The Winner's Circle

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