The Coors Classic
The Colorado Classic, which started on Thursday, is the latest in a line of professional bike races to meander through the Centennial State. But they all stem back to the Coors International Bicycle Classic, an event that helped define US racing, put Colorado cycling on the map and changed how a generation of fans saw the sport.
“When the race started it was the ‘70s and we were post-Vietnam war, anti-establishment counter culture — cycling was so far from mainstream,” said Connie Carpenter-Phinney, Olympic gold medalist and winner of the race in 1977 and 1982. “We were definitely flying under the radar until this race gained stature.”
Starting life as a three-day event in the city of Boulder known as the Red Zinger Bicycle Classic, Coors eventually grew to become a 16-stage spectacle. The race ran from 1975 to 1988.
Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault, giants of road cycling and both winners of the Tour de France, raced the event and were pictured with founder Mo Siegel in its earliest days. Even though Colorado racing has evolved beyond recognition, it still holds a gravity within the sport.
Its origin story is much the same as many other historic bike races; it was 1975, and the Celestial Seasonings Tea Company needed an event to launch a new tea, the Red Zinger. Men’s and women’s races were run concurrently, with prize money nearly equal — uncommon then and still today. Professionals raced alongside top amateurs competing on national team squads and Russians raced on American soil during the Cold War. An alternative future for cycling was being trialled and Celestial Seasonings sold some tea.
During its 13 year history, the Coors Classic grew to become the sport’s fourth-longest race. It began as a Colorado-only event, but came to include starts in Hawaii and San Francisco, where the field was subjected to a prologue up the notorious Telegraph Hill, a 30-percent ramp in the heart of the city.
The Coors Classic was brash, free from cycling’s heritage and convention, and wholly American. Its expansion molded the collective consciousness of American bike racing. Warner Bros made American Flyers, and the race was the first network television sports assignment for John Tesh, the renowned presenter who went on to win awards for his coverage of the Tour de France. It sold $2.5 million worth of Coors Classic merchandise in 1987 and ’88 alone.
“I was really looking at modifying what I saw to be the European sport and taking those elements and reconfiguring them to an American appeal, an American conciseness,” said Michael Aisner, who started running public relations for the event in 1977 and later became its owner and chief promoter.
TV executives were nervous about coverage offering little more than riders’ behinds for hours on end. And so race organisers went to BMW and had them build special bikes with swiveling seats for cameramen so they could film inside the peloton. The event embedded writers from French magazines and Gazzetta dello Sport, and journalists took a week off work to produce copy and radio for the event itself, turning the Coors Classic into its own content-generating machine. Eventually, it was on the major American television networks and to this date, it remains the single most lucrative women’s race ever held.
The spectators followed. Thousands of people pressed into the barriers in Boulder, and masses lined the streets in Vail and San Francisco. They were drawn not just by the quality of the field but also its diversity. The pro-am status of the race allowed fans to see riders from beloved national teams go toe-to-toe with professional outfits at a major event.
“Everybody has a heritage,” Aisner said. “This made something of interest to a public who had no interest in cycling. They would come to watch their country win, or the ‘evil’ Soviets would come over, or the ‘evil’ East Germans, and they would fall in love with [the racers], because they were likable people. There were big smiles on their faces in the heart of the Cold War.”
The Classic ultimately led to the creation of the Tour de France Feminine and spurred the development of women’s cycling. “It also put women’s cycling on the map. We were treated with great enthusiasm by the fans and included almost every step of the way,” Carpenter-Phinney said. “It was nothing short of ground-breaking for women’s cycling.”
The Red Zinger/Coors Classic franchise helped create an identity in American cycling and had a profound effect on both fans and racers, including Davis Phinney, the race’s final winner in ’88 and Giro winner Andy Hampsten.
“I grew up watching University of Colorado football games and dreamed of being a mainstream sports athlete but as I went into Boulder High school as a five-foot, two-inch kid who had yet to hit my growth peak, I was too small for football,” Phinney said.
“Voilá, the race happened, and I was smitten! It was the perfect confluence because the races included crowd-pleasing criteriums, which suited me, and longer mountainous road races, which I later adapted to. I was fortunate that the race was in my hometown, my home state. It was a dream. As much as I’ve been known for winning stages of the Tour de France, it was the Red Zinger/Coors Classic that inspired and defined my career.”
Hampsten caught sight of the race first as a junior visiting Colorado and then moved to Boulder to “enjoy the weirdness.”
“As an American racer it was our showcase to race against the world’s best racers from Europe and South America. The Colombians were the real challenge, and I trained at altitude mimicking their style of repeated attacking,” Hampsten said.
“All of the racers responded very positively to the welcoming party atmosphere that Aisner created … The crowds were large, excited, turned on to discover racing, and wonderfully co-ed. Of all ages. No cigar smoking old men telling the racers how to do it like in the old days. Blissful conditions for any ambitious racer looking for attention.”