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It was a congress of incongruities. The lush vineyards and plum orchards of Alexander Valley, 85 miles north of San Francisco, were muted in drizzle and overcast and it took the racers in their orange, green and blue warmup suits to provide the missing color. The event, the four-day Italian Swiss Colony 100—the title itself seemed a misnomer—was made possible by the backing (over $20,000 worth) of Heublein, Inc., the makers of mixed cocktails, which is not exactly every racer's idea of the stuff to train on. And the races? Well, they weren't races, really, they were time trials, among amateurs who ultimately rode off into the sunset with $6,200 in gift certificates in their pockets for pedaling against the clock. But if anybody worried over these seeming contradictions, he was as quiet as the spectators—there were about two. For last week in California, U.S. amateur bicycle racing, a sport with the financial brakes on despite the bike boom, finally started freewheeling.
These were the first comprehensive time trials ever held in this country. For want of money, the 52-year-old Amateur Bicycle League of America had never been able to conduct trials that covered so many distances for so many combinations of racers—four-man teams, two-man teams, single riders and tandems—and standing on the league's skimpy books were only seven time-trial records.
Now 35 hand-picked racers were gathered to change all that. They came from around the country and included college graduates, carpenters, bike-shop repairmen, a cab driver, a cook and a soldier. Among them were four members of the 1972 Olympic team and a gallant airline pilot, Lindsay Crawford, who failed in his ride against the clock for 24 hours but did shatter two league records during the 14 hours and some minutes he struggled through the rain. They were a strange breed of dedicated, durable and highly competitive athletes going flat out on $500 bikes with classic names like Cinelli, Masi and Pogliaghi, and in the end they had wiped out five of the seven and added 88 records for their countrymen to go after.
"Finally," said Trial Director Ralph Heins, "we have a national yardstick for every distance. A racer in any part of the U.S. will be able to test his ability against the best performances of the top cyclists."
To provide the purest measurement of their real speed, the racers were separated by one-or two-minute intervals. This prevented them from interfering with one another or from coasting along in the vacuum created by a rider just ahead. The course was roughly rectangular, consisting of four joining roads with a measured distance of exactly 5.852 miles. It did have six sharp turns, but except for three gentle rises, it was flat. Even so, these were subject to the finickiest kind of calculations by the record-hungry riders, who also measured the angle of every turn. Some drilled holes in their expensive bikes to lessen the weight, some shaved the hair off their arms and legs to make repairs on the skinned areas easier and gentler after the inevitable falls and abrasions. All experimented with high-energy diets to sustain their stamina.
The most exciting of the trials was the assault by John Howard, Rick Ball and Mike Neel on the 25-mile record—58:08—set in 1965 by William Kund of Riverside, Calif. Howard and Ball were on the Olympic team in Munich and Neel would have been had he not decided he would get more experience racing on the European amateur circuit. Considered this country's best racer, Howard has done most of his training in the Army, where he is a Pfc. He is a gangling fellow with deep-set eyes and a jaw that slices forward like a half moon. He spent a restless night before the race, sometimes mumbling, "I've got to beat Ball."
Ball, who is studying for a master's degree in mathematics, is a perfectionist. He was inspired to start bicycle racing after a European cyclist almost overtook him while he was chugging through the Alps on a low-powered motorcycle. The night before the 25-mile trial, he put himself to sleep calculating the gear settings for different gradients of the course and the pace he would follow. Neel, at 21 the youngest of the three, went quickly to sleep after downing an enormous spaghetti and meatball dinner.
The three racers got away at one-minute intervals. Their bodies were all but flattened over the handlebars to cut the wind resistance as their legs drove into the pedals. It was a close race, with Ball and Howard in the lead and Neel trailing slightly. After they had made nearly four laps of the almost six-mile course, Howard's wife Kim startled the still air by shouting to her husband, "You're 50 seconds ahead." Howard, holding a furious pace, misunderstood. He thought he was 50 seconds behind and drove even harder to the finish. There, to his surprise and relief, he learned that he had won in 55:16.1. Ball clocked in at 56:43.1 but kept rolling to complete one hour on the road and got a league record of his own, 26.52 miles for the hour. Neel finished 11 seconds shy of Kund's old mark.
On Oct. 11, 1914 at Grant City, N.Y. one Berthold Baker cycled a measured mile in 2:08. In the almost 58 years since, no American was able to cover the distance any faster until sprinter Skip Cutting had a go at it in Alexander Valley. A member of the 1968 Olympic team and winner of some 47 bicycle sprint events in Europe this summer, Cutting is a big, barrel-chested man with an appetite to win that is as big as his thighs. At the starting line, while birds chirped in the background, Cutting took a few deep breaths and then exploded on the pedals of his 18-pound LeJeune.
According to ABL of A rules, he had to make two runs, one in each direction with a half-hour rest between. His time would be the average of the two runs. On the first, Cutting's time was 2:02. While he was resting, a young Olympian named Ron Skarin made his first run in 2:10.4. Skarin rested briefly, then made the reverse run on an almost imperceptible downgrade in 2:04.3. The average of those two runs put Skarin six-tenths of a second under the old record. What was more important, Skarin had picked up nearly six seconds on his second try. Should Cutting do as well, he would come up with an average of under two minutes. As it turned out, Cutting's second run was 2:03.1. It was not enough to break the two-minute barrier but it gave him 2:02.6, well below the record.