Monday, April 28, 2014

America's Tour: The Coors Classic

Years before many Americans knew anything about the sport of bicycle racing, before any Americans had competed in the Tour de France, and before many even knew such a thing existed, the Coors Classic was developing into America's Tour. Starting life as the Red Zinger Classic in 1975, the race changed names and sponsors and grew in size and prestige until the final Coors Classic was run in 1988.

The inaugural year artwork.
(From StoryArts Media.)
Looking back on it, the founding of such a race seems entirely improbable. Mo Siegel, one of the founders of the Celestial Seasonings tea company in Boulder, Colorado, by chance saw a small bicycle race near the University of Colorado that must have absolutely entranced him because he quickly set to work organizing a race that would promote his growing tea company. Named after their spicy Red Zinger tea, the inaugural 1975 race was just two days long and was won by American racing legend John Howard, who was a dominant force in this country's nascent racing scene -- 3-time Olympian, 4-time National Champion, later an Ironman Triathlon World Champion, and holder of a human-powered land speed record.

By 1979, the Red Zinger had grown to eight days, and expanded into other Colorado cities such as Vail and Aspen. After the '79 race, the event was sold to promoter/race director Michael Aisner -- reportedly for just $1! Aisner managed to get Colorado brewing giant Coors to sign on as the title sponsor, and the Coors Classic was born. Jonathan "Jacques" Boyer won that first Coors edition, a year before becoming the first American to compete in the Tour de France. Celestial Seasonings would continue to support bicycle racing in other ways over the years, such as team sponsorships.

Racing against the Rockies as a backdrop: Andy Hampsten,
Doug Shapiro, Jeff Pierce, and Alexi Grewal
(from the Coors Classic Official Magazine)
Under Aisner's leadership, the Coors Classic continued to expand in its importance and scope, adding stages in California, Nevada, Wyoming, and even Hawaii. During that time, it also grew to more than two weeks of racing, becoming the fourth-largest bicycle race in the world, after the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia, and Vuelta a España. In the earlier years, much of the racing emphasis was on criteriums -- short, fast races with multiple laps around a tight circuit -- at the time, probably the predominant type of racing in the U.S. Because of the compact nature of the race courses, criteriums were ideal for spectators, and more spectators were good for the sponsors. Over the years, the race became more "European" in its style, with greater focus on longer road courses, especially over the rugged and beautiful mountain passes of the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas, but the criterium circuits were still a big and popular part of the racing spectacle.

Chris Carmichael climbing "The Wall" of Morgul-Bismark
on his way to a stage win in '84. The picture was used
in ads for Specialized, which provided race support.
One of the more famous road stages passed through the Colorado National Monument and was evocatively named the "Tour of the Moon" for its dramatic landscape. It necessitated closing a U.S. national park, which was the first time that had been done for a sporting event (park service policy changes since then make it unlikely to happen again, at least on the same scale as the Coors Classic). The Morgul-Bismark circuit was another storied stage that routinely ended with a sprint up a 12% grade known as "The Wall." Some notable stages in California (beginning in 1985) included a time-trial hill climb up to San Francisco's famous Coit Tower, and a criterium on Fisherman's Wharf -- featuring a hairpin turn on Pier 45 that was so tight and so close to the water that it was amazing nobody ended up taking a plunge into the bay.

Racing the Coors Classic could sometimes be unpredictable. In the 1987 event, which featured stages in Hawaii, one of the routes had to be changed just weeks before the race because of a road closure due to lava flow. I'm pretty sure that never happened in the Tour de France.

Highlighting the unpredictability of stage racing in the U.S.,
this bunch of horses broke loose through their fences and started
running among the racers in the '82 Coors Classic.
(from Bicycling, Nov/Dec. 1982)
Connie Carpenter and Greg LeMond share the winners podium in 1981.
(from the Boulder Daily Camera)
Doug Shapiro of the 7-Eleven team powers on to win the '84 edition.
(from the Coors Classic Official Magazine)
In the '85 edition, Andy Hampsten of the Levi's team kept the pressure
on eventual winner Greg LeMond. Hampsten's performance was so
impressive that year, he would be invited to join LeMond and Bernard
Hinault on the La Vie Claire team in '86. (from Bicycling, Dec. '85)
Raúl Alcalá took the victory in the 1987 race -- the first
(and last) to visit the state of Hawaii. (from Cyclist, Feb. 1988)
Although primarily a showcase for American racing talent, Aisner worked to make the Coors Classic an international racing event, inviting professional and amateur teams from all over -- most notably the East German and Russian National Teams. Just a year after the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, American racer Greg LeMond (who was part of that Olympic team) got his chance to race against the Russians at the Coors, and won. LeMond would go on to win again in 1985, the same year he was denied a victory in the Tour de France by his teammate Bernard Hinault. The following year, Hinault would win the Coors himself -- his last win before retiring from the sport in 1986.

Grewal showboats his
way across the finish
at Morgul-Bismark, '83
Like any good racing event, the Coors featured plenty of drama and some good rivalries. One such ongoing rivalry was that between 1984 Olympic gold medalist Alexi Grewal and his adversaries (and once teammates) on the 7-Eleven team. The temperamental Grewal was often a foil to the powerful 7-Elevens, and though he never actually won the Coors overall, he sometimes seemed to be riding as much to prevent them from winning as he was trying to win himself. Grewal could be unpredictable, but that just fit with the nature of the race. In 1983, after riding for a solo win in the Morgul-Bismark stage, he famously jumped off his bike just short of the finish line and danced across the line with his bike held high in the air. Some people loved him. Others couldn't stand him.

Connie Carpenter says goodbye to fans
after her last Coors Classic stage win before
going on to take gold in the '84 Olympics.
(from the Coors Classic Official Magazine)
The most decorated racer in the history of the race was 7-Eleven's sprinting star Davis Phinney. Winner of numerous Coors stages, he won the points classification every year from 1981 through 1987. He was the overall champion in the race's final year, 1988. It seemed fitting.

Another thing worth mentioning about the Coors was that it was one of the premier events for women's bicycle racing, and in that regard it has not truly been eclipsed even through today. Though generally shorter and with fewer stages than the men's race, the women's race was held every year except 1976. Olympic gold medalist Connie Carpenter was a three-time champion ('77, '81 and '82). French racing powerhouse, Jeannie Longo, also won the women's race three times ('85 - '87). The success of the women's Coors Classic was the inspiration for the Tour de France Féminin (later called the Grand Boucle Féminin, now defunct.)

At the peak of the race's popularity, it was featured in the 1985 film American Flyers, starring Kevin Costner and written by Steve Tesich who had won an Oscar for his screenplay in Breaking Away. Although the race in the movie was renamed "The Hell of the West," and was only three days, much of the racing footage was shot on location at the Coors Classic -- particularly the Morgul-Bismark and "Tour of the Moon" stages. Great film? Well, no, not really. I enjoyed it, but I also recognize its weaknesses. I'll write about American Flyers in detail some time in a future post.

The most decorated racer in Coors
Classic history - Davis Phinney at last
took the overall title in the final
1988 race. (photo from Diane Huntress)
Unfortunately, the Coors Classic began to lose a bit of its lustre in the last couple of editions. In 1987, the year the race traveled to Hawaii, getting the race into and out of the island state turned out to be a logistical headache which got the red ink flowing. Worse still, race scheduling conflicts and a perceived lack of big prize money kept a lot of the European teams and competitors away. Mexican racer Raúl Alcalá, with the 7-Eleven team, won that 1987 race against a diminished field of only 10 teams. The 1988 edition would turn out to be the last, as the Coors Brewing Company decided not to renew their sponsorship deal. Nobody else was willing to step in to fill the void for a race that was so indelibly linked with Coors that fans would probably call it the Coors Classic regardless of who the title sponsor was. Davis Phinney's hard earned victory that year made the departure bittersweet.

With the loss of the Coors Classic, attention was turned to a new stage race in 1989, sponsored by self-promoting real-estate mogul Donald Trump. Unlike the Coors Classic, the Tour de Trump (classy name, right?) was held up and down the Eastern Mid-Atlantic states and consisted of 10 stages in its first year, and 13 in 1990. That race would change sponsorship and be re-named the Tour DuPont from 1991 through 1996. The closest thing we have to the Coors Classic today is the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, which started in 2011. The USA Pro Cycling Challenge races over some of the same territory once covered by the Coors, so comparisons are inevitable. It seems to me that it may have potential to grow, but for the time being it is a smaller scale event than the Coors Classic was at its peak.

In the 14 years that encompassed the Red Zinger/Coors Classic, the race became in the minds of many people the USA's unofficial national tour. The race was a showcase for a lot of rising American racing talent, a fostering hand in developing this country's bicycling "scene," and a big step in showing the world that American's could compete with the best cyclists in the world.


  1. A friend of mine and I happened upon the Coors Classic in Aspen one year and stayed to watch. We saw Greg Lemond, Bernard Hinault, Laurent Fignon and Jeannie Longo, among others. That was a great day.

  2. Do you have more information on the tour de trump and the tour dupont? There's a curious lack of information on the second and subsequent races, probably too old and simultaneously too new to get on the web anywhere.

    Here's a question about the tour routes, this information is just not to be found.

    What do you remember about it ?

    1. My old bike magazine collection has a lot of holes in it during those years when the Tour de Trump/DuPont was being run. I remember watching Greg LeMond in it, and he won it in '92 (I think it was one of the last wins in his career). I hate to say it, but the notes/facts given in that stackexchange article contain more information than I could find otherwise.

  3. Great post! Thanks for all the great info. I was born in '78 and grew up in Colorado - definitely remember the Coors Classic name and wish I had been old enough to appreciate it at the time.