Switching from music to cycling for a moment, now it can finally be told. The true story of how Ukulele Rob was defeated in his final race as a licensed amateur cyclist by three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond.
Actually, while it’s true that yours truly capped his brief competitive cycling career losing to one of the greatest cyclists in history, the details are a bit more complicated. The year was 1977 or 1978, as I recall. I was a United States Cycling Federation Category II licensed cyclist, riding for the Santa Barbara Bicycle Club. It was the annual October weekend in the Santa Ynez Valley, when riders came from all over the West Coast and Nevada to compete in the Santa Ynez Road Race and Solvang Criterium. With a budding legal career (and if it actually was 1978, a daughter on the way) I’d decided earlier in the season to “hang ‘um up” after Santa Ynez.
Categories I & II rode together in the main event on Saturday, the road race. A teenager by the name of Greg LeMond came down from Carson City with his Dad, Bob, himself an amateur racer of some renown. Greg was already an up and coming Junior, and he and his Dad asked then-USCF District Representative Robert Enright whether or not Greg could ride with the “grown-ups” in the Category I & II event, rather than in the Junior Road Race. Enright was known as stickler for rules, but was persuaded by the race promoters and the competitors to allow Greg to join the big boys, after being convinced that Greg wouldn’t hurt himself by riding in the longest of the weekend’s events.
At least we all started at the same time. But about 40 miles into the race I suffered a puncture. Amateur racing in those days wasn’t what you see these days in pro events on TV. There was no team equipment car to rush to my rescue with a fresh wheel. No crowds of team fans with spare bikes to lend. Instead, as the rest of the peloton sped away into the distance, I had to pull out some tools, remove my glued-on “sew-up” flat tire, replace it with a sticky pre-glued spare that I carried in a back jersey pocket, and pump it up with my frame-mounted emergency pump. Then it was back aboard, chasing, while trying to keep the tire rim glue on my gloves from cementing my water bottle to my hands.
As I rode on to the finish, bit by bit I caught other riders who had punctured, crashed, or had simply been blown out the back by the peloton, until we had a well-organized chase group of about ten of us. About five miles out from the finish line we added Hannah North, then one of the top women in the sport (who as I recall was riding that year for the L.A. area’s Paramount Cycling Club). Hannah had herself flatted during the women’s road race that had started on the same course.
As we made the final turn toward the finish-line banner, onto Alamo Pintado Avenue in Los Olivos (where the race staff was actually starting to take the banner down, after having packed up most of the crowd barriers and other finish-line equipment), our group made a pact for a straight-on, handlebar-to-handlebar, no-drafting, no tactics sprint for the final 10 places in the standings, and we made good on that pact with two blocks to go as — to the horror of the folks milling in the street at the finish — we spread out across the entire pavement, from one curb to the other, at 35 mph, and put our heads down and went at it.
I finished somewhere in the middle, but with none of the officials making any attempt to figure out who was finishing 132nd, 133rd, 134th, etc., who knows? But I do know that the winner of our lanterne rouge chase group sprint was … Ms. North!
By the time I got over to the park where the awards ceremony was being held, race winner Greg LeMond had already showered, put on a clean team jersey for the photographers, and had accepted his prize (and chagrined congratulations from Mr. Enright).
But the sweet smell of victory was short for LeMond. The following morning one of my SBBC teammates, Rory O’Reilly, aced him out for the win in the weekend’s final event, the Men’s Category I & II Solvang Criterium. (That’s O’Reilly coming around LeMond in the photo, above.)
After that weekend we each went our separate ways. LeMond, of course, went on to win the Tour de France three times (and with the disgrace of Lance Armstrong, remains the only American to ever win Le Tour), the professional World Championship Road Race twice, and a host of classic U.S. and European events, and he continues to be a great spokesman for the sport. O’Reilly went on to specialize in the “kilo” on the track, where he was a Gold Medalist at the Pan Am Games in 1983, and competed for the U.S. in the 1984 Olympics. Later on he was a successful cycling coach.
As for me, in the years right after, I spent some time as a District Representative for the U.S. Cycling Federation, promoted some local races, and even worked as a certified Official at some international events. The closest I ever came to actually competing after that was some years later when, while riding a classic Raleigh 3-speed with fenders and solid-bar brakes and wearing a sport coat and tie, I accidentally stumbled across a road race in progress and jumped into the midst of a Category IV pack, mid-race, much to the amusement of the competitors. (I dropped out before the first road intersection, rather than risk being intercepted by a race official.)
And I also have fond memories from another 3-speed ride in 2010 here in Sacramento when, days before the start of the Tour of California, I was riding to a meeting via the American River Parkway at a comfy 13 mph. I was caught by a line of cyclists wearing identical Quick-Step team jerseys. Thinking they were locals, I fell in with them, taking my turns at the front, easing back in a rotating pace line, just like the good old days of racing, as the guys in the group giggled. On one rotation I recognized a smiling Tom Boonen (2005 World Road Race Champion), and suddenly realized “Hey … these aren’t replica jerseys! They’re the real thing!” Just then one of the team members patted me on the shoulder, smiled, and said in a thick Swiss accent, “OK … we go fast now.” And off the professional Quick-Step team went at 30 mph, leaving me in the dust.