1986, Colorado Springs. The Cycling world officially arrives on American shores. But like a lot of things, the big "first" moment had its share of earlier moments. And what of this day? Details aren't great but let's dive in...
1. Calling Italian Bike Racer Central Casting...
Far from a sudden event -- like, OMG Greg won the Tour! We love cycling now! -- cycling had been subtly working its way back to American shores from Europe throughout the 1970s. The Red Zinger Classic -- eventually the Coors Classic -- started in 1975 and gave people in certain communities the access to big-time racing they wouldn't have otherwise enjoyed. The event got major network coverage, which in turn led to Tour de France coverage, and you can see where things went from there. But if there was any impression of cycling I -- far from the west -- retained from this era, it is Team Cinzano. Yes, the revered, and secretly nasty Italian team fictionalized by the incredibly wonderful film Breaking Away (though based on an actual Italian trade team). Gli Cinzani are the protagonist's ideal of a cycling entity, titans in his adored sport. By the end Dave Stoller has stopped pretending to be Italian, but for a while it seemed glamorous.
Anyway, unlike some others, the Italians don't show up on Coors Classic results sheets, and I can find no evidence they participated before 1986, when the Coors was used to warm up for the World Championships. [It's possible they were present in 1984, warming up for the Olympics. Again, we could use some info here.] Apart from their fictional appearance in Indiana, Italians hadn't apparently raced much in America since the heyday of the Six Day. If then.
So ciao, Gianbattista Baronchelli! Possibly the single most Italian name I had ever heard at that point in my life (Gianbattista is John the Baptist), and in my family that's saying something. I knew of Baronchelli a bit from old magazines we collected at the international newsstand in Harvard Square, and he seemed as much like the Cinzanos as anyone. But Baronchelli, apart from making a cameo here at the head of the race, was a real and very significant cyclist in his day. And one of the themes for this race was the incredible depth of the Azzurri. Baronchelli was getting a bit long in the tooth on this day, 33 years old, but age didn't stop him from winning the Giro di Lombardia about six weeks later.
Photo via Bikeraceinfo.com
Baronchelli was a classics man, winning the Giro delle Apennini on six occasions as well as the Giro del Lazio, Giro del Piemonte, Giro della Romagna, Giro di Toscana and Giro dell'Emilia as part of his regular rampage through the Italian hilly classics. He also took second behind Bernard Hinault in the 1980 World in Sallanches and took fourth in Liege-Bastogne-Liege on one occasion, along with some other nice finishes. But about 98% of his quality work took place in Italy. The Colorado Springs course was good for him on paper. If you could have dropped it somewhere by the Rubicon, he'd have been in business. Instead he finished 40th, in the pack.
2. Welcome Back Badger
Bernard Hinault needed little introduction to the viewing audience in Colorado that year. Cycling fans of all stripes knew him as the five-time Tour de France winner and most American fans at least knew him as the guy whom Greg LeMond just outdueled in a positively operatic Tour, the first won by an American. What fans didn't maybe know so much about Hinault is his role in bringing America to the big-time.
As captain of the Renault squad, Hinault traveled with Directeur Sportif Cyrille Guimard to Reno, Nevada to sign LeMond in the summer of 1980. LeMond had been traveling in Europe with a national-team-sponsored outfit, and won the Circuit de la Sarthe to become the first American to win a serious race, and the youngest to win that event to boot. That got the Renault folks scouting LeMond, and you can find priceless photos of the two French cycling icons decked out in western garb in Slaying the Badger. By the start of the 1980 Tour LeMond had inked his deal.
Hinault returned to the West in 1986 to race, winning the Coors Classic in his last stage race, but apparently took careful note of the 1985 edition where Andy Hampsten gave a (probably very tired) LeMond a run for his money in both the climbs and time trial. By 1986 Hampsten was on board at La Vie Claire, Hinault's last team, though in his rookie Tour he did more to help LeMond in the face of Hinault's attacks than anything else.
In his last race on US soil, Hinault finished 59th, comfortably in the pack while his teammate Charly Mottet battled with Moreno Argentin in a winning-two-man break.
3. Beauty Eh?
A lone Canadian rider shows up on the results sheet of the 1986 World Championships, that being Steve Bauer. If Greg LeMond was a pioneer, what exactly was Bauer? LeMond wasn't actually the first American to show up in Europe, and he wasn't alone for long. In Bauer's case, I personally have not heard of any Canadian riders preceding him or joining him in his prime. Most of the time he seemed allied with Americans and other English speakers, defying the standard Canadian annoyance at being lumped in with Americans. He turned pro with La Vie Claire and spent more time at 7-Eleven than any other team.
And he was damn good. In 1984 he took silver in the Olympic road race, then turned pro and took bronze in the World Championships in Barcelona. He was best young rider at the 1985 Tour and fourth in 1988. In 1990 he spent over a week in yellow. And despite that record suggesting he could climb, he finished fourth in both de Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix (while mysteriously not doing much in the Ardennes). His lone classic win of note would be a Championship of Zurich in 1989.
Bauer must be this rider, because it would be his rightful place to sit on the wheel of Hinault. There's also a swatch of white and yellow on the shorts that look like La Vie Claire. And then there's the Canadian jersey. Dead giveaway. That bronze medal would be his best Worlds performance, as Bauer would finish in the pack on this day. And have one other day of note in national colors... more on that in a sec.
4. A Sprinters' Race?
Next up is Guido Bontempi, possibly the largest rider in the race, or at least in this picture, and a fearsome sprinter back in his day. Bontempi won 16 Giro stages, six Tour stages and four Vuelta stages in his career, along with Gent-Wevelgem twice, E3, Paris-Brussels, and countless other events. He came second at Milano-Sanremo, and the closest he got to a rainbow jersey was on the track.
So what was he doing in Colorado Springs, of all places? Two reasons. First, he was wrapping up the best year of his life, which included one of those Gent-Wevelgem wins along with five Giro stages and three Tour de France stages. Plus others. I doubt whoever was coaching the nazionale felt like he had much choice in bringing Bontempi. Second? The course. No matter how closely you associate Colorado with mountains, there weren't any on this course. There were hills, but nothing severe enough to stop a 68-rider pack from nipping at the heels of the winning duo, nine seconds back. Bontempi took 14th in the bunch gallop, his best Worlds result.
5. It Wouldn't Be the USA Without Him
I'm pretty sure from the color swatches and the placement in the peloton that we're looking at a glimpse of Greg LeMond. There were a number of American starters, including Hampsten in La Vie Claire colors, so I could be mistaken. Obviously LeMond was the hometown boy but not necessarily the favorite to win. Hinault had more or less smoked LeMond in the Coors Classic time trial to win the overall, after yet another messy bout of internecine warfare. And there would be no gifts from the European teams, that's for sure. I'll just guess that LeMond was among the most-watched riders in the peloton, and though he had a strong team around him, the US was among the (n-2) teams who missed the winning move. LeMond rolled in for seventh, one of his few forgettable Worlds results. This is the rider who won the junior World Championship in 1979, won the rainbow jersey in 1983 and 1989, and took silver in '82 and '85. It's easy to think of hometown riders as having an advantage, and sometimes they do win the gold, but it's far from a given.
6. The Messiest Possible Ending
Next on our list is Claude Criquelion, who passed away earlier this year from a stroke. Criquelion is definitely one of the more highly decorated participants in this rather star-studded World Championships -- a note for US fans. When we do get the Worlds, we have had some good luck in which edition. Nobody will ever forget Sven Nys in Louisville, at least among cyclocross fans. And while this race might not have been memorable, the 1986 Worlds startlist is gold.
Anyway, Criquelion already had a rainbow jersey in his closet from Barcelona '84, where he won in dominant fashion, finishing 14 seconds ahead of Claudio Corti and ages ahead of everyone else (Bauer won bronze at 1.01). He was a rider for the climbing classics, winning de Ronde and La Fleche Wallonne (twice), along with fourth at the Vuelta one year. He had multiple podiums at Liege and Amstel to boot, and was coming off fifth in the Tour de France that year. All Criquelion could muster on this day was 14th, even though it was maybe a decent route for him. Like so many others, he missed the winning move.
But if Criquelion is remembered for anything besides Barcelona, it's his performance -- and his fate -- in the 1988 Worlds. Racing in Ronse, in the heart of the Vlaamse Ardennen, Criquelion was on the verge of living a dream, a world championship just a few km from where he was born (in Lessines, just over the linguistic border). He and Italian Maurizio Fondriest are away but start looking at each other inside the final kilometer, enabling Bauer to make contact and turn the pre-sprint shenanigans into a three rider affair. It's an uphill sprint, and Bauer opens his at the 175 meter mark, swinging from the left barrier into the center of the road. The other two leave him hanging, but eventually Criquelion moves up the right barrier through what he thinks is an open door to glory, only Bauer closes it, elbowing Criquelion into the barriers and down onto the tarmac. Bauer seems shocked and dispirited, or at least spent by the early sprint, and Fondriest inherits the win. Bauer finishes second. Several other riders overtake the walking, gesticulating Criquelion, who is awarded 11th.
Things were just getting started, however. Criquelion protested his crash, and the race jury disqualified Bauer. Criquelion went on to sue Bauer in Belgian court, only to lose as Bauer successfully argued that the barriers had been narrowed at the end. Such moments are always hard to assign blame but Criquelion spent the rest of his tragically short life assigning blame to Bauer, who denied all charges. If you were to walk into a cycling pub in Flanders right now, chances are you could find an argument about who was right or wrong in this split-second moment. If there is a worse way to end a race, I can't really think of one. Criquelion is said to have lived the rest of his life regretting what happened.
7. Low Country People in High Places
Identification starts to get tough here. I'm going with Teun van Vliet; it's either him or Steven Rooks. Rooks was a notable climber, finishing second in the 1988 Tour de France and taking the maillot a pois, and he owns a few other major victories such as Liege, Zurich and Amstel Gold. Still, if I had to identify that little snippet, it wouldn't be the spiky-haired Rooks but rather the more mop-topped van Vliet, a cobbled classics rider notable for a few Tour de France exploits as well. Van Vliet finished second to Henri Manders on a stage of the 1985 Tour to the Roubaix, across the cobbles. Van Vliet was held up by his race director Jan Raas and lost the stage, but he eventually wrote a Gent-Wevelgem win by his name, along with seconds in Milano-Sanremo and Paris-Tours. He also has survived two bouts with an inoperable brain tumor, undoubtedly his best victory, for as long as it lasts.
The Dutch fielded a strong team in Colorado Springs, with Rooks and fellow former Tour champion Joop Zoetemelk, riding in his age-40 season. There was also Adri van der Poel, a cyclocross world champion and all-rounder, whose career was once waylaid by testing positive for strychnine, which he traced back to eating bad pigeon pie. And Theo de Rooy won a few races before graduating to management at Rabobank. (Ouch.) But the highest point in the Netherlands is 321 meters, and it's safe to say that most of these guys spent their lives at somewhere other than the Netherlands' highest point. Sure, they all rode everywhere, with distinction. But it can't have been good to race on a course that started at 6000 feet..
8. Sean Kelly, World Champion
Another tough one to spot, but the shorts appear to say KAS on them, and anyway Stephen Roche was hurt in 1986. So this has to be Kelly. And if there is a walking, talking demonstration of the limitations of the World Championships format, it's the man who would be King.
Kelly's accomplishments on the bike are too numerous to list, but I'll summarize by saying he won early (Paris-Nice, annually) and often. He won spring stage races, cobbled classics, Ardennes classics, Spanish mini-tours, grand tour stages and points jerseys, and a Vuelta a Espana. He'd start winning in February and continue to Lombardia. The only thing he didn't touch was the Giro, and I'm sure there's an amusing-yet-deadly serious Kellyesque anecdote explaining this.
He could sprint with the sprinters and climb with most of the climbers. He could handle his bike like a mo-fo (two Paris-Roubaix wins and an unforgettable Poggio descent say so). He was hard as nails. He's probably still all of those things. Because cycling isn't something he did, it's who he was. But he doesn't have a world championship jersey in his closet. He won bronze twice, at Goodwood in 1982 (Saronni) and Chambery in 1989 (LeMond). He has three fifth places. Luc Leblanc has a rainbow jersey. So does Romans Vainsteins. So does Maurizio Fondriest. Oscar Freire has three. Kelly has none.
Sean Kelly's career is, quite simply, an existential threat to the legitimacy of the rainbow jersey. It's a reminder that one-day racing will always be 75% crapshoot, and for the very best of them, their number comes up less often than not. It's a reminder of just how great Eddy Merckx was, the only cyclist to seemingly defy luck and win over and over. It's a testament to what counts as justice in cycling, which is nothing at all. Sean Kelly might be the greatest cyclist ever to not take home the rainbow. If there's a more deserving non-winner out there, fire away. Maybe a better way of putting it is this: given his greatness and his skillset, Kelly may be the most improbable non-winner in World Championships history.
9. End of a Dynasty
Random Spaniard here... I can't find any KAS team members from Spain listed among the finishers, so I suspect this guy was a domestique/DNF. He might have even worked for Kelly, who knows. But seeing a couple KAS guys in there made me wonder about the team, which in 1986 was two years from its end as one of the sport's longest-running squads. KAS began by sponsoring a team in 1958 to promote its line of soft drinks, and by 1959 it hooked no less a fish than Federico Bahamontes, the Eagle of Toledo himself, though it wasn't an entirely profitable arrangement -- Bahamontes only stayed one year, and though he won the 1959 Tour de France, it was under a national team format. Bah! Next up was Jose Manuel Fuente, a double-Vuelta winner and four time Giro climbers' comp victor. But Fuente soon found himself up against Merckx, including an epic battle in 1972 with Merckx winning by five minutes. By 1978 the team was on thin ice, spending 1979 as a Belgian-registered outfit before ceasing. Jean de Gribaldy revived the sponsor as part of his Skil-Sem team in the 1980s, and KAS went on to be Kelly's team, but six months after this photo de Gribaldy was killed in a car crash. The team moved back to Spain for two more years before de Gribaldy's successor, Luis Knorr, passed away. KAS was ranked #1 in the world in 1986, '87 and '88, its final three years of existence. Its last success was Kelly's improbable 1988 Vuelta win.
10. Not pictured... the winner.
Oh yeah, and last there is Moreno Argentin, who would emerge the victor in Colorado Springs. Just 25 years old as the race rolled out of the start area, he was already a national champion, twice-winner of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and coming off a win in the Estes Park circuit race stage of the Coors Classic. This was a pretty good omen, given the location being at a whopping 7500 feet, and being a circuit race relatively similar in format to the World Championship course. That race is remembered in Owen Mulholland's writings as the last time LeMond and Hinault went at each other's throats, with the standard La Vie Claire lack of leadership and suspicions of treachery -- this time by Hinault, who busted a wheel and executed a bike toss that unfortunately has been lost in the pre-Youtube ether. Anyway, Argentin escaped from the peloton in the closing phase of the race and won alone.
Sound familiar? That's not exactly what happened in Colorado Springs, but it's close enough. This time he had Charly Mottet for company, but Argentin was probably feeling pretty confident in his sprinting chances. In his two LBL wins -- both preceding Colorado Springs -- Argentin won from a three- and four-man sprint. [And in 1987 he would win in a five-man sprint.] I'm sure if I searched the archives I could find examples when Argentin got to the line with a group at the end of a very hard day and didn't win the sprint, but they aren't many. He had a third in MSR in 1982, but that was a sprint win after two escapees had finished. He won the bunch sprint for second in Lombardia in 1981, at age 20.
Oh, but I can find one day when, at the end of a major classic, he couldn't put it away. One of the more memorable classics in modern cycling history. Enjoy.
As usual, if you watch this and still don't love cycling, I've got nothing for you. So, there you have it. The 1986 World Championship men's road race, a pretty good race in an odd location... with a startlist for the ages.