Sean Bennett will make the jump to the WorldTour in 2019 with EF Education First-Drapac.
The 22-year-old American rode with Pro Continental outfit Hagens Berman Axeon this season and enjoyed what he called his “biggest growth year.” He delivered solid results all season, winning stage 6 at the Baby Giro in June.
EF’s team CEO Jonathan Vaughters saw the potential. In a team press release, Vaughters described the conversations that led to the deal.
“When I called Sean up,” Vaughters said, “my question was, ‘Are you a little pissed off that you’ve been looked over while other guys, like Neilson Powless and Brandon McNulty and some other high-profile U23s, have been in the spotlight? Does that irk you?’
“And he said, ‘Yeah, it does.’”
“I thought, ‘perfect.’”
Bennett rose through the developmental ranks as a mountain biker, finding success in high school and then transitioning to the road. He is an all-rounder who still has time to settle on a particular area of expertise on the road. Now, he’ll have a chance to work that out at cycling’s highest level.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” Bennett said. “And signing with EF offered me the most knowns in a world of unknowns. Having familiar faces around me — people I know, I like, I get along with — having that will ease this transition.”
On Friday cycling’s American governing body revealed that current President and CEO Derek Bouchard-Hall plans to step down from his post at the end of 2018 to oversee a separate company. Bouchard-Hall, 48, took over at USA Cycling in June 2015, following the departure of Steve Johnson, who oversaw the organization for nine years.
“It’s bittersweet. We like Derek and he’s put his heart and soul into this place, and we’ve benefitted from that,” said Bob Stapleton, USA Cycling’s chairman. “We want him to do what is good for him and his family. There’s no drama and we’re going to miss him.”
Bouchard-Hall will remain as interim President and CEO through December 31. Stapleton said that USA Cycling has begun the process of hiring Bouchard-Hall’s replacement. The organization has retained a recruiting firm, which will work with a small selection committee within the organization to find a successor. The organization hopes to have a replacement hired by the second quarter of 2018, Stapleton said.
“This is not our first rodeo. We did this four years ago,” Stapleton said. “We don’t want to lose any momentum, and [Bouchard-Hall] is helping us through the transition. We’ll make sure we keep moving forward.”
A former national criterium champion and member of the 2000 U.S. Olympic pursuit team, Bouchard-Hall took over USA Cycling after working for online cycling retailer Wiggle. His racing background and impressive resume—Bouchard-Hall has an MBA from Harvard Business School and began a career in consulting with Ernst & Young—made him an ideal candidate for the position.
But Bouchard-Hall took over amid a period of upheaval in American cycling. For many cycling fans, the specter of doping during the early 2000’s had tarnished USA Cycling’s reputation, as the governing body oversaw the development of the country’s top young riders. Shifts in participatory cycling trends, among other dynamics, led to an erosion of USA Cycling’s membership. And the organization’s lineup of corporate partnerships sagged.
Stapleton praised Bouchard-Hall’s leadership during this tough period for the organization, and said Bouchard-Hall’s efforts led to success across the board.
“I can’t say he fell short anywhere,” Stapleton said. “We’ve made dramatic changes in our informational systems and web and mobile tools. He rebuilt a bunch of relationship inside the sport with our core constituency. Athletically, we moved to a high-performance model. And overall, I think our management team is the best I’ve ever seen.”
Stapleton said Bouchard-Hall’s successor does face challenges, namely in rebuilding a connection with casual and enthusiast riders. The successor must also grow USA Cycling’s lineup of corporate sponsors.
“People are still riding but they’re doing things differently, and USA Cycling has got to adapt to that,” Stapleton said. “I don’t think the fundamental demand has changed.”
In a release, Bouchard-Hall said the decision to leave was “the hardest professional decision of my life.”
“My professional career has focused on improving organizations and setting them on a new path,” he said. “I am confident that I have done that at USA Cycling, and am proud of the team we have in place which will continue improving our ability to support our membership.”
Team Sky keeps loading up on talented youth while more riders are on the move in the WorldTour.
Just days after announcing Jhonatan Narvaez, Sky confirmed the arrival of Filippo Ganna from UAE-Emirates. Edward Theuns heads back to Trek-Segafredo and Eduardo Prades punches his ticket to the WorldTour with Movistar.
“Filippo is a rider who has won under-23 Paris-Roubaix plus world and European titles on the track, so you can see he is a great all-round talent,” said Sky coach Dario Cioni. “He’s still developing on the road and this team is a great place for him to do that alongside the young talent we have at Team Sky.”
Ganna’s arrival punctuates Sky’s strong Italian links — with backers Sky Italia, Castelli, Pinarello, Kask, Elite, and Fizik — as well as several Italian riders and staffers.
With the arrival of Ganna, Sky also continues on its youth trend. Last year, it signed three promising riders with Egan Bernal, Tao Geoghegan Hart, and Pavel Sikilov. Narvaez, Ganna, Eddie Dunbar, and Ivan Sosa bolster Sky’s young talent that could emerge in the coming years.
Sky still has a few names unconfirmed for 2019, but it appears the team is largely holding steady going into next season. It’s made a strong push to sign a mix of youth and experience the past two seasons, with eight new signings coming into 2018. Departures for 2019 include Sergio Henao (UAE-Emirates), Beñat Intxausti (Euskadi-Murias), and Lukasz Wisniowski (CCC Team).
Caja Rural’s Prades’s big win at the recent Tour of Turkey helped him pen a deal with Movistar. Other new arrivals with Spain’s lone WorldTour team include Jurgen Roelandts, Carlos Verona, and Lluis Mas.
And just days after announcing his departure from Sunweb with a year remaining on his contract, Theuns returns to Trek-Segafredo.
“He will be one of the pillars of the classics group,” said general manager Luca Guercilena. “He’s given us wins in the past and we are certain he will do it again.”
Just days before the presentation of the 2019 Tour de France route, Tom Dumoulin has hinted he will put the yellow jersey at the center of his season next year.
The Sunweb star is waiting to see what the Tour organization comes up with on the October 25 presentation in Paris. All indications are that Dumoulin will target the yellow jersey as his primary goal next year.
“We haven’t made the final decision, but I would like to go to the Tour to win,” Dumoulin said in an interview with NOS. “I would not consider my career a failure if I do not win, but obviously I have been close, and I want to try again the next few years.”
Dumoulin, 28, was runner-up at the Giro d’Italia and Tour. He was also second in the world time trial race and fourth in the road race. It was a tremendous season without a major win, but Dumoulin said he has no regrets.
“No mistakes, no regrets,” Dumoulin added. “Froome and Thomas were stronger than me. The simple truth is that there was always someone a bit stronger than me.”
Dumoulin has the complete package to race and win grand tours. Arguably among the best time trialists in the world, he can climb with the elite of the peloton. Only a pure climber can drop Dumoulin on the steepest climbs.
Looking back at 2018, Dumoulin said he sensed that Froome was on the comeback after the Sky captain won the stage at Zoncolan. Froome later attacked over the Colle delle Finestre to bounce into the lead in what was the season’s biggest coup.
“When Froome won at Zoncolan, I never said it, but I knew it that Froome was back,” Dumoulin said. “Of course, it’s easy to say that I should not have waited [on Finestre] but based on what was happening in the moment, it was the best decision at the time. I had not planned on riding solo for 75km.”
No, it’s not a typo. Andrea Tafi, a winner of three of cycling’s five monuments, says he’s thinking about returning to racing 20 years after he won Paris-Roubaix. He would be 52.
The Italian, who raced from 1988 to 2005, told La Gazzetta dello Sport he’s considering a comeback in order to race the Hell of the North on the 20th anniversary of his 1999 victory.
“This crazy idea came to me; to come back and race Paris-Roubaix again,” Tafi told the Italian sports daily. “Twenty years after winning it. An impossible dream? Maybe, but I want to try.”
Tafi raced Roubaix 13 times, winning once and notching two other podiums. After retiring in 2005, Tafi opened a cycling tour lodge in his native Tuscany.
With his age well into the master’s category, Tafi wants to defy convention and try to convince a cycling team to hire him on. Would a WorldTour team or one of the invited squads want to risk one of their precious seven starting spots to a rider who hasn’t raced in nearly 15 years?
“I have to find someone to hire me,” Tafi said. “I cannot, then maybe we can ride the ‘gran fondo’ amateur event. I raced this summer in some events surrounded by young people and I was holding the pace. Someone said, ‘Why don’t you return to race Roubaix?’”
Tafi said he’s been in contact with second-tier teams but has not reached out to WorldTour-level teams. He also confirmed he’s been in contact with the UCI about reactivating his license and being available for anti-doping controls required six months before a return to competition.
Nicknamed the “Gladiator,” Tafi was part of the Mapei super-team in the late 1990s and was among the top stars of the Italian generation that dominated the northern classics in the 1990s. Tafi was also among 18 riders who tested positive for EPO during the 1998 Tour de France in retroactive controls carried out in 2004.
Tafi said he rides up to 18,000km per year and still fits into his racing jersey he wore 20 years ago.
“I don’t want this to be a circus,” he said. “If I would do this, I would dedicate myself 110 percent. The idea to race Roubaix. I would do everything to the minute detail. I don’t want to look ridiculous in front of the whole world. Patience, calm, serene — but let me dream. Let me taste this impossible mission.”
In a team statement, Theuns said he didn’t fit into the Sunweb system and asked to be released despite having one year left on his contract.
“It’s been a tough year for me mentally and physically,” Theuns said. “I tried to adapt to the team’s way of working, but it didn’t really work out for me. We differ in vision so we decided it would be best to end the contract.”
Theuns, 27, raced the Tour de France with Sunweb this year but did not win a race in his first year of a two-year deal with Sunweb after coming across from Trek-Segafredo. The Belgian’s won seven races in his career, with the last coming in 2017.
“I already have a new team,” Theuns told Sporza. “More information will be forthcoming. I will let the [new] team make the announcement.”
According to Sunweb officials, the two parties separate on mutual agreement on “good terms.”
“Following extensive talks, we realized that our visions different too much and lack the common strong foundation that is required to continue working together,” said Rudi Kemna, Sunweb’s head of coaching. “Giving Edward the opportunity and freedom to continue his career elsewhere is only the right decision.”
Along with Theuns, there are some other key departures for 2019. Simon Geschke, a Tour de France stage-winner and key helper, is heading to CCC Team along with experienced domestique Laurens Ten Dam. Mike Teunissen and Lennard Hofstede are heading to LottoNL-Jumbo while Phil Bauhaus to Bahrain-Merida.
Sunweb is aiming to rebuild its core around some important signings. Bakelandts and Nicolas Roche arrive from BMC Racing, providing some experience, but the team is betting once again on youth. Robert Power moves across from Mitchelton-Scott while Casper Pedersen joins in the wake of the Aqua Blue closure. Cees Bol and Asborn Kragh Andersen, older brother of Sunweb rider Soren Kragh Andersen, both bump into the WorldTour and Marc Hirschi, Max Kanter and Joris Nieuwenhuis are promoted from Sunweb’s development program.
The core of the team remains centered around Tom Dumoulin, who is expected to target the Tour next year after finishing second in both the Giro d’Italia and Tour in 2017. Wilco Kelderman, Michael Matthews, and the ever-improving Sam Oomen will see leadership roles in key races. Chad Haga remains the lone American on the roster.
The 2019 Tour de France route will be unveiled on October 25 in Paris amid heightened anticipation.
So what will it look like? Officials do their best to keep things under wraps to intensify the sense of intrigue. What race officials strongly deny is that the course is designed with one specific rider in mind.
“We always try to create a balanced route,” Tour technical director Thierry Gouvenou told VeloNews. “We never design a course with one rider in mind. That’s not how we do it.”
Some might question that, especially after the 2012 Tour route that seemed tailor-made for eventual winner Bradley Wiggins. Packed with time trials, Wiggins went on to win Britain’s first yellow jersey and open the era of Sky’s domination of the Tour. Team Sky has won every Tour since 2012, except in 2014 when Chris Froome crashed out and Vincenzo Nibali won.
Though Tour officials are loathe to admit it, it does seem that they like to tilt the course design away from the established favorites and give a glimmer of hope to the would-be challengers. Following the emergence of Primoz Roglic in 2018, it wouldn’t be surprising to see some final-week stages that could favor the explosive climber with strong time trial credentials.
Of course, Gouvenou is quick to point out that many riders share the same qualities, so that’s why they insist that they do not design the course with one rider or team in mind. Some suggested this summer’s route was designed for French hope Romain Bardet, but one could have predicted that Geraint Thomas was going to win the 2018 Tour.
Gouvenou did say that the Tour is pressing to keep innovating when it comes to each year’s course. Gravel, steep climbs, and shorter stages are seeping into the Tour fabric.
“We like to change the course every year and make it unpredictable. We want to force the team to change the way they race,” he said. “We design the course based on many factors, not about a rider or team.”
Gouvenou, along with Tour director Christian Prudhomme and other Tour officials, spend months designing each year’s Tour route.
The process can stretch out over years as officials, led by Prudhomme and his team, work to procure host cities. Contracts are typically hammered out at least one to two years in advance for the Grand Départ. And once they have that in place, officials then plot out the directional flow of the Tour. One of the main questions is which comes first; the Alps or the Pyrénées. After the general layout is in place, that gives Gouvenou, who designs the nitty-gritty details of each stage, plenty of time to fill in the dots.
So what’s going to be new for 2019? There are always rumors of new, undiscovered climbs or dramatic roads.
For Gouvenou, a former pro who took over as technical director when Jean-Francois Pescheux retired in 2014, the Tour wants to find the right balance between innovation and tradition.
“Everyone likes the shorter stages and we have experimented with that over the last few years,” Gouvenou said. “But there is still a place for longer stages. You must make the race hard to keep the character of the Tour. We cannot have 21 stages of 110km each! There is a wide spectrum of distances, but the average is around 180km.”
We already know the race will start July 6 in Brussels for the second time in Tour history. The event will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first of five Tour wins by Eddy Merckx. Next year’s Tour will also mark 100 years since the introduction of the yellow jersey.
The race will open with a road stage reaching across the Flanders and Wallonne regions, giving sprinters a chance for the yellow jersey. The second stage will be a 24km team time trial, a format that always proves decisive in the GC. And we know it will end July 28 in Paris.
There are rumors of a return to the Vosges, more gravel and even suggestions of a climbing time trial up Mont Ventoux. Gouvenou always likes to keep a few surprises up his sleeve. We will find out October 25 in Paris.
For the second time in a week, Sean Bennett was off the front at the Baby Giro.
A short, lumpy stage 6 opened with “pissing rain,” but the clouds had broken by the time the 22-year-old American and three companions were powering into the finale in Pergine Valsugana. As the conditions became clearer on the road, so too did the fact that Bennett might have a real shot at a stage win in one of the world’s premier under-23 races.
“Everyone was working super well and there were two GC climber guys. I wasn’t super worried about them. [Robert] Stannard was the only guy that I was worried about,” the Hagens Berman Axeon rider says, talking to VeloNews by phone this week.
As the kilometers ticked down, Bennett’s team director Axel Merckx told him to take fewer pulls.
“I got to rest a little bit — and then everyone looked to me in the final,” Bennett says.
At the head of the group, as it rolled into the final kilometer, Bennett was in a tough position for the final sprint, but his freshness paid off. He kicked from a few hundred meters out and held off Stannard and the other two escapees to ensure that the top step of the podium would be all his that day in Italy.
Although the Baby Giro isn’t usually headline news in the world of pro cycling, Bennett’s stage win in mid-June was a crucial step in his fast development. Bennett expects to continue progressing in the coming season, but first, here is an inside look at that victory.
BENNETT’S 2018 SEASON got underway in February when he joined the Hagens Berman Axeon squad as a “last-minute thing.” A spot on the highly successful U.S.-based development team had opened up when Adrien Costa stepped away from the sport, and Bennett got the call to make the jump. He had ridden on Continental teams, such as Jelly Belly and CCB, but this was a step up to the Pro Continental ranks.
Bennett hit the ground running. Within a few weeks, he was out on the road in Europe, starting a block with few breaks from racing that would last all the way through June.
It did not take long for Bennett to put his talents on display. The spring saw him deliver top-10s in the Istrian Spring Trophy (a stage race in Croatia), the under-23 Gent-Wevelgem, the under-23 Tour of Flanders, and the Tour of the Gila before a promising Amgen Tour of California.
None of those strong rides actually put him atop the podium, however. He had proven that he was the sort of all-around talent that could be in the mix on a variety of terrains, but a win could put him on the map as an up-and-comer to watch on the American racing scene.
Consistency is a crucial selling point for a young rider looking to impress WorldTour directors, but so too is a winning edge.
THE UNDER-23 GIRO D’ITALIA is not a WorldTour race — but WorldTour teams were certainly watching as Bennett showed off his legs and his racing acumen this past June. The event has been an important showcase for young talents over the years, with the likes of Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates), Joe Dombrowski (EF Education First-Drapac), and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) turning in strong performances there early in their careers.
For Bennett, it was an opportunity to use the form he’d built into during a busy spring. Axeon’s biggest season target, the Tour of California, had finished only a few weeks prior.
“It was just kind of race after race, and that was the last race in a big block of stage racing,” he says. “I think really the target during that time for most of the guys was California. I held form up until then.”
Bennett’s form was on full display on a sunny day along California’s Central Coast in May. A lumpy third stage of the Tour of California race saw multiple attacks and regroupings in the closing kilometers, with Toms Skujins jumping into a break on a late climb and then soloing clear. Bennett used his big engine to bridge up to the Latvian WorldTour rider.
The pair was together with a healthy gap to the pack as the Laguna Seca Raceway finishing circuit came into view, but then Skujins shot off the front. Bennett could not follow. Skujins snatched the stage win. Bennett slammed his bars in frustration at the near miss.
The stage may not have gone his way, but the form was there. A few weeks later in Italy, Bennett still had something left in the tank, and the drive to turn that into a result. That meant staying alert to breakaway opportunities in Italy.
A versatile rider, Bennett thrives on the attack, battling it out in a small group. He came up through the developmental ranks initially as a mountain biker before transitioning to the road, and he still retains those bike handling skills. He is a strong time trialist who can also climb and packs some punch too.
That whole package came in handy in stage 6 of the Baby Giro.
After rolling out from Dimaro Folgarida for a short, 120.7-kilometer day, Bennett stayed safe on an early, wet descent and then he and Robert Stannard (Mitchelton-BikeExchange) jumped clear on the day’s first real climb. They were joined by Alejandro Osorio (GW-Shimano) and Mark Donovan (Team Wiggins), both of whom were in the mix for the general classification. Stannard was in that conversation as well — he ultimately finished third overall at the Baby Giro.
The presence of GC hopefuls in the dangerous move set off alarm bells in the peloton behind, but the firepower off the front proved too much for the pack to match.
“When we hit it, we hit it,” Bennett says. “We put like two minutes on the field with a team chasing us.”
Bennett and Stannard had been off the front together on an earlier stage of the Baby Giro. That move hadn’t quite worked out, but with the peloton two minutes behind in stage 6, Bennett knew that this one would and that the 20-year-old Australian, set to ride with the WorldTour’s Mitchelton-Scott next year, would be the rider to beat in the final moments of the day.
That gap held into the waning kilometers of the stage, when it became clear that the group would stay away. Rain-slicked, narrow roads and an undulating parcours were not a serious problem for Bennett, who started looking to conserve energy as the escape edged closer to the finish line. With teammates Will Barta and João Almeida back in the peloton, he had an excuse to be all in for the stage win.
He found himself on the front of the group heading into the finale, not always the best place to be for a sprint, but his tactics paid off. He wound up to speed with a half kilometer still to go, and just as he’d expected, it was Stannard who mounted the biggest challenge. But Bennett proved to have just enough, eking out the victory ahead of his fellow up-and-comer.
A one-handed air punch at the finish line was the only celebration Bennett dared to risk.
“Stannard was quite close to me. I had like a half bike length on him,” he says. “You don’t know till you know.”
A win in one of the world’s top under-23 events proved to any WorldTour outfits keeping an eye on the racing in Italy that Sean Bennett was the real deal. It also proved to Bennett himself that, every now and then, breakaways work out.
“[It proved that] my riding style can pay off. It’s not just all going to fail. That’s something that this year has taught me,” he says.
“If you try as much as you can if you have legs at all, there’s always a possibility. You might as well do it, rather than doing nothing.”
BENNETT FINISHED THE BABY GIRO 11th overall after landing in the top 10 in each of the final three stages. He would later finish top-10 at the Grand Prix de Wallonie, a bona fide pro race categorized at the UCI 1.1 level.
His collection of solid results, capped off with a big victory against some of the top up-and-comers in the sport, was just the sort of season Bennett needed. After just one year at the Pro Continental level, he is ready to continue climbing pro cycling’s ladder.
The 2018 season has been tough for domestic racers as it is, and Bennett, while young, is nearing the end of his time as an under-23 rider. His Baby Giro success, as well as his consistency, gave him more than a few reasons to be positive about his own future despite the challenges so many North American-based teams are facing right now.
“This year for the sport, it was just fighting the whole year, really hard, for everyone,” he says. “You can’t get comfortable.”
The way he approached this season, diving in head-first after the last minute call-up to Axeon, Bennett does not seem like the kind of rider in danger of “getting comfortable” any time soon.
This season was merely a stepping stone, one he calls his “biggest growth year.” He won’t content himself with a few solid rides in under-23 and lower-ranked pro events. He will, however, have plenty to build on moving forward, and a Wednesday afternoon in scenic northern Italy — even with a bit of rain — is one of those building blocks he won’t forget.
BEIHAI, China (VN) — Sepp Kuss is ending his first season in the WorldTour ranks on a high and looking ahead to a repeat performance in 2019.
This season, the Colorado native signed for WorldTour team LottoNL-Jumbo, won the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, and debuted in a grand tour, the Vuelta a España.
“I’ve had a lot of nice races late in the season, the second half of the season was really nice for me,” 24-year-old Kuss told VeloNews. “I’m still enjoying it, I’m motivated. I don’t feel like I burnt my matches.”
Kuss rode high in the Vuelta a España working for George Bennett and Steven Kruijswijk. Dutchman Kruijswijk led his home team to a fourth overall.
Helping Kruijswijk, Kuss led the bunch on many of the mountain stages when several stars were either dropped or struggling. From there, he rode a tough world championship and traveled to China where he is racing the Tour of Guangxi.
In Beihai, the first finish of the Tour of Guangxi, Kuss and LottoNL-Jumbo won with their sprinter Dylan Groenewegen.
“It’s super cool. One of my best memories from this year was from the Volta ao Algarve, I also did it with Dylan [Groenewegen] and it’s just cool when you are part of the winning effort. And it makes for a good vibe in the team,” Kuss added.
Later in the season, after a convincing win at Tour of Utah, he was called up to his debut grand tour at the Vuelta.
“The Vuelta was a concentrated learning experience. Other races are six days, but in three weeks you really learn a lot more. The race takes different forms, so you are always in some new scenario, which is good for me.”
Kuss did not race for himself, often finishing well behind on the stages and ending the race 65th overall, but as a climbing domestique, he saw some of the action at the front.
“It was cool in my first grand tour to be riding for someone who was going to finish high up in the GC,” he said. “Not only that but Stevie [Kruijswijk] is really experienced, to ride for him, someone who’s done so many grand tours, and he’s always at the front, that’s cool.”
Kuss admits he is “not a huge goals” guy. After the Tour of Guangxi ends this weekend, he and his teammates will meet with the staff to plan the 2019 season.
“I definitely like the grand tour style of racing. I still have a lot to learn in the week-long races too. I don’t know my schedule yet, but I hope to do another grand tour for sure and go off what I did this year. Just see what the races are like with one year of experiences under my belt,” he continued.
“The [Vuelta a España] definitely gave a lot of confidence, maybe the other races will feel shorter now. It’s definitely cool to have that under my belt. I didn’t even think a grand tour would be possible for me at the start of the year.”
Kuss will travel home to Colorado after the LottoNL-Jumbo meeting in the Netherlands. He will stay there while others meet for the December camp. At that point, he should know the roads he will take in his second year at the top level.
Editor’s note: There has been a lot of discussion and hand-wringing recently about the current status and future of American cycling. Some observers are optimistic about the current situation while some are more pessimistic. Others have suggested new approaches to make cycling more popular and accessible in the United States. Looking back, it was Michael Aisner’s Coors Classic that originally introduced pro cycling to a wide audience in the United States, and helped to create many of its early icons – including Greg LeMond, Connie Carpenter, Inga Thompson, and Andy Hampsten. While much of cycling’s fan base today is too young to have seen the race in person, it put the U.S. on the international cycling map in the 1980s, and eventually became one of the top four cycling events in the world.
The Coors Classic was in many ways the brainchild of the impresario and race director Aisner. The influence of the race, and many of Aisner’s innovative approaches to connect with fans and communities are still thirty years later. The Outer Line recently sat down with Aisner at his home in the foothills above Boulder to reminisce about the event, the broader sports and entertainment business, and to identify some of the ideas or lessons which the Coors Classic might provide for the sport’s complicated and challenging situation today. The story below – and an upcoming part 2 – review the history of the race, examine some of the organizational strategies and marketing approaches employed by Aisner, and suggest ways that some of those tactics and lessons might be put to better use today.
Michael Aisner is something of a renaissance man and a seeming perpetual energy machine. He has been involved in a wide range of sporting and entertainment projects throughout his life. One website describes him as “a shotgun blast of worldwide wandering and pure stoke.” He started producing documentaries while still a teenager in Chicago and even managed to interview Muhammad Ali and Louis Armstrong. He ventured to the Arctic to film and publicize the inhumane killing of baby seals, and with National Geographic he has participated in airlifts to save polar bears in northern Canada. He has produced interactive theater events and live-casts, managed sports programs for ESPN, consulted on a variety of Oscar-nominated films, and is now at work on a feature film about Jane Goodall, and her early days in the jungle amongst the wild African chimps. He has also found time to chase down and film eleven total solar eclipses in all corners of the globe.
Along the way, Aisner also built one of the most successful bike races ever held in the U.S. — an event which has many potential lessons for today’s race organizers and promoters. Although he is quick to share the credit, Aisner, now in his early 60s, clearly provided the energy, passion, and creative approach which characterized the Coors Classic from its earliest days. For those old enough to remember, few will forget the image of Bernard Hinault winning his last ever stage race, rolling into North Boulder Park before 50,000 screaming fans. But even more important, in retrospect, was the high bar of organizational and marketing excellence that the Coors Classic eventually set, creating a business model that was wildly successful in its day, and one which most cycling events since that time have struggled to duplicate.
The race was actually launched in 1975 by Boulder entrepreneur Mo Siegel, the founder of the Celestial Seasonings herbal tea company, to promote interest in bicycling for recreation and alternative transportation. The race was originally called the Red Zinger Classic, named after the company’s flagship tea flavor. Siegel connected with Aisner in 1976 and asked him to try out his PR acumen with the 1977 Zinger. Local interest in the event had grown quickly, and Siegel had been able to bring in some key sponsors early on. He had also initiated a women’s race, helping to build a broader audience, and the event was already being covered on local TV.
Aisner knew “absolutely nothing” about bike racing, but he jumped into the event feet-first. “The first thing I did,” he says, “was to hire a film production company to make what we used to call a ‘short’ — a brief docu-film about the race which could be distributed around to mainstream movie theaters.” The first movie short was 11 minutes long, and various subsequent episodes ended up being shown nationwide in theaters, ahead of popular films like “Jaws” and “Breaking Away.” “People all across the country were seeing North Boulder Park and the tricky S-curves up on the peak-to-peak highway, with the Rockies as a glorious backdrop,” says Aisner. “It was an exciting, high energy film — ‘Connie Carpenter wins!’ ‘George Mount wins!’” Later, Aisner got well-known ABC Sports announcer Jim McKay to narrate a short film documenting the brutal battle between neo-pro Greg LeMond and the towering 1980 Soviet Olympic gold team; that brought even more attention to the race.
“I feel like that was my first real contribution to cycling,” says Aisner. “I wanted to reach people ‘out of context.’ If we were to grow the race, we had to utilize media outside the traditional cycling sphere, to hook new fans.” Aisner was effectively trying to mainstream the event to the broader American public. In retrospect, perhaps counter-intuitively, the fact that Aisner was almost a complete outsider with no preconceived notions about how to do things, may have been one of the most important strengths that he brought to the event.
One dollar’s worth of pro bike racing
In 1979, Siegel determined that the race was costing his company too much money and time. By now, Aisner was working pretty much full time on conceptual development and operational management of the race. “Mo sold me the race for one dollar,” Aisner recollects, “but like usual with Mo, he also had some ideas for a path forward.” Siegel suggested that they drive down the road to Golden, Colorado and try to convince the giant Coors Brewing Company to sponsor the race going forward. “At first I thought Mo was crazy,” Aisner remembers. “I mean, here you have this counter-culture hippie herbal tea company and their dearly beloved bike race, going to this big, bad, right-wing Coors company.”
It wasn’t a simple transition, recalls Aisner, “Coors didn’t even have a sports department to manage their two properties — a hot-air balloon and a Belgian-horse hitch wagon. The race was the catalyst to start a proper ‘big boy’ sports sponsorship division. And look what that is today!” The 1980 race was renamed the Coors International Bicycle Classic, with a sponsorship level about twice as high as Celestial’s, in the $300,000 range.
The overall technical, operational and financial management of the entire race quickly grew increasingly complex that year. He had to make the leap into management from just doing PR and marketing, and says, “I didn’t know anything about race organization – how to deal with police, close the roads, set up the start-finish areas, and all the rest. I had to try to give myself a crash course, and learn whatever I could from the experts.”
Somehow Aisner, in conjunction with a small staff of a half dozen people — along with an expanding army of volunteers — kept the complex logistics of the growing event in check. “For a few years there, I was sort of like a one-man local organizing committee and Medalist Sports wrapped up into one.” He credits east coast race promoter Dave Chauner as being one of his first mentors. “I needed to learn things fast, so I asked if I could just sit down with him and talk, to learn everything I could.” He also cites long-time pro cycling announcer Phil Liggett as another important mentor. “At that time, Phil was a journalist and was promoting the great amateur British Milk Race. So, I just jumped on a plane went over there, followed him around, and picked his brain for everything that I could learn.”
Another way that Aisner tried to “mainstream” the Coors Classic early on was to approach Rolling Stone to be the official magazine for the race, even though the established publications like VeloNews and Bicycling were already involved. When skeptical Rolling Stone editors asked why they should be interested, Aisner convinced them that cycling was a “rock n’ roll” sport. “It’s youthful, it’s fast, it’s colorful, it’s dangerous and it’s international. Rolling Stone basically owned the youth market in those days. Everybody read it, and I wanted that youth appeal. ”The publication agreed, publishing an insert in its magazine about the race for the next three years. By that time, the race had developed quite an eclectic network of sponsors — Rolling Stone, BMW, NBC Sports, Coors, Southland 7-Eleven — but Aisner focused on integrating their marketing and sponsorship efforts to cooperate and work together.
Aisner gained confidence and began to diversify and grow the race. First, he started to expand the event out of Colorado and into a longer stage race format, covering several other western states. He looped in other sports-mad and mainstream locations like Vail, Aspen, and San Francisco, California, and eventually even Hawaii. To push the competitive boundaries, Aisner convinced the UCI to let pros compete against the amateurs, a formula he says “was the single most intriguing aspect of the Coors Classic, and makes the race a unique part of U.S. cycling history.” The race became the place where many future champions burst into the spotlight: future Tour de France stars like Australian Phil Anderson, Colombian Lucho Herrera, Canadian Steve Bauer, and Mexican Raul Alcala have credited the Coors as a key career catalyst.
He also emphasized the women’s side of the event, bringing in more European women to compete against the dominant American racer Connie Carpenter. “Connie was brutally focused,” says Aisner, “and the tougher the competition, the stronger she raced.” The Classic became the biggest race in the world for women. The women mostly raced the same courses as the men, some with shorter race distances, and the prize money was nearly equal.
The event quickly grew. Aisner felt the sport had the ingredients to be a hot and attractive sport with a distinctive American personality, and he tried to think of every possible way to push it out to the public. “It was a constant effort to try to expose the race, beyond the normal cycling fans and aficionados.” By the early 1980s, all three Denver TV stations, as well as ESPN, were covering the race. “During race week, the Denver NBC affiliate even delayed “The Tonight Show” for five minutes – just so they could do an update on the Coors Classic!” says Aisner. “That’s the kind of attentive coverage we were starting to get; it rivalled or even exceeded some pro franchises.”
Inviting the communists to the Coors Classic
Greg LeMond arrived at the Classic — and into the U.S. sporting spotlight — as a neo-pro in 1981. President Jimmy Carter had pulled the U.S. team out of the Olympics the previous year, allowing the Soviets to dominate much of the Moscow Games’ competition, and that gave Aisner an idea. He recounts a press conference on the steps of the State Capitol earlier that year with then-Governor of Colorado Dick Lamm and Coors executive Peter Coors. “I kind of threw down the gauntlet to Pete Coors. I turned to the governor, and said ‘I think I’m going to invite the Soviets to race this year.’” The idea caught Coors by surprise. “I mean, these Coors guys were heavy-duty Republicans — Pete’s dad was part of Reagan’s ‘kitchen cabinet,’” remembers Aisner, “but to take this thing to the next level I had to bag the Soviets. So, I challenged them on the steps that day to come over here and meet the pros head-on!”
The Soviets accepted the invitation, and later, so did the East German team. But the only way to communicate with the Eastern Bloc was by sending telexes and cables, and “we had to do that down at the Coors brewery,” laughs Aisner. “It felt a tad awkward for us to be telexing the communists from Coors!” “A few weeks before the race the FBI came around,” says Aisner. “They expected the Soviets to try to defect, and they were instructing us on procedures for dealing with that.” The event garnered international attention as more pros committed to that edition. “It was sort of this huge, titanic clash between east and west and we had media credential requests from all over the world,” says an animated Aisner. Once again, Aisner’s nose for the market, and instincts for attracting the public proved correct: the Cold War athletic stand-off brought in a new and wider range of fans for the race — and although the Soviets won the overall team ranking, LeMond took home the winner’s red jersey.
The management and strategic direction of the race may have been an unorthodox collaboration between Aisner and Coors, but he doesn’t hesitate to give the company credit for helping to grow the scope and visibility of the event. “I pushed them hard, but almost every time I brought them a new idea, they considered it,” he says. “Coors represented a real field day for me, and for the event. I just kept pushing the envelope, and there was a great level of support for us in Coors Sports. Everything that I tested seemed to work, and so I just kept going.”
Transforming TV coverage
The 1981 event was a turning point for the Coors Classic, and Aisner’s next big challenge was to try to develop broader national television coverage. “I was pushing everybody to pick it up. I kept trying to tell them that here is a fresh, intense, personality-heavy sport and a race in rarified air, rife with potential danger and good TV angles.” But the national television executives were skeptical. “The CBS guys told me there was no way to cover the sport for an American audience and to come back when I figured it out,” remembers Aisner. So he took the initiative, and went off to the world championship in Czechoslovakia later that year, and ended up bringing home photos of a key innovation which changed everything.
While observing the Worlds, he saw how motorcycle cameramen had mounted a swivel device on the back of their motorcycles, “so that the cameramen could shoot backwards into the faces of the riders. All the TV guys in New York had ever seen were cameras following the race, shooting a bunch of asses! Of course it wasn’t interesting!” Aisner convinced BMW to give him two top-of-the-line motorcycles which he then fabricated with swivel seats and camera gearboxes, and took photos back to the CBS Sports guy in New York, along with some film from Europe. “They said, ‘holy shit’ – this might just work,” recalls Aisner, and signed the race to CBS.
There were other innovations during this time. The race started a merchandising division, which quickly grew larger than the race itself. Hats, banner, jerseys, t-shirts and various other memorabilia for the Coors Classic quickly sold. “We generated monstrous numbers for those days,” says Aisner. The merchandise division brought in as much as $1.5 million by the mid-1980s; the group had a full catalog in wide distribution, and employed more people than the actual race division. “We had more than $100,000 of sales even in Japan,” says Aisner. “Coors was heavy into licensing – they were ready to license most anything. We ended selling over thirty unique race-branded products to cycling and sports stores, as well as mainstream grocery and drugstore retailers.”
Throughout the era, Aisner remained focused not so much on trying to make the Coors Classic a big cycling event, as on making it one of America’s great entertainment events. Expanding the race into San Francisco provided the sport one of its iconic moments — but one that almost didn’t happen. While Coors liked most of the ideas Aisner proposed, they were resistant to taking the race to the unfriendly turf at Fisherman’s Wharf – all of the docks were heavily unionized, and Coors was known as a virulently anti-union company. “We’re not very well liked out there’ Pete Coors told me,” recalls Aisner. “They do not sell Coors on Fisherman’s Wharf or in much of San Francisco.’” Although Aisner recognized it as a serious challenge, he told Coors that he thought the race was bigger than the anti-Coors sentiment, especially given his plans to bring the great French rider Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond here for the first time.
Coors didn’t stop the Classic staff from going to San Francisco, but Aisner and his tech director Don Hobbs had an interesting reception in the process. “We had one big, gold-chained Italian restaurant owner pull a Khrushchev on us, banging his shoe on the table, and saying ‘over my dead body will you ever bring anything Coors down here to the wharf.’” One Coors distributor that they talked to, leaned back in his chair, says Aisner, “and pointed to a hole in the wall above his desk. ‘That was a bullet intended for me. Welcome to San Francisco, gentlemen. I suggest you rethink this.’ These guys were serious players, but so were we.”
Aisner and Hobbs audaciously told the skeptics that people would show up from all over the west in huge numbers. And the plan worked – the San Francisco start along Fisherman’s Wharf and up to Coit Tower was a massive success, beyond anything they could imagine. The same route has been emulated in more recent years by the Tour of California. “And Coors beer got back on a number of local taps!”
The Coors Classic eventually lost the company’s support after the 1988 edition, when a new brand manager wanted to “do his own thing.” Aisner got the news from a reporter while he was running through an airport, and then spent most of the fall and winter of 1988 in New York City frantically trying to pin down new major title sponsor. A deal with the Nuprin parent company fell through at the final contract signing. Aisner then had even a bigger deal firmed up with Dodge Motors, but a few days before that deal was to close, parent Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca announced tens of thousands of layoffs and, famously, that he was cutting his own pay to one dollar a year. The sponsorship deal collapsed days later. By then, the race was in danger of losing its position on the international race calendar. Eventually, Aisner had to acknowledge that the race had run its course. Like so many cycling events, despite its long record of success and innovation, the Coors Classic folded due to lack of sponsorship dollars.
Many races have come and gone since that time, most of them struggling economically and typically only lasting a few years. Exceptions include the Amgen Tour of California, now in its twelfth year, or, as Aisner points out, the more volunteer-staffed and regionally popular races like the Redlands Classic, Tour of the Gila, and Minnesota’s Nature Valley/Northstar Grand Prix race. But the Coors Classic represents the golden age of cycling in the United States in many respects, and we should ask what lessons it can suggest for today’s scattered and economically challenging landscape.
Michael Aisner clearly brought a unique combination of creativity, passion, and boundless energy which helped make the event successful. He compares his role to that of an orchestra leader. “My job was really to carry the vision, challenge the race to grow and never be stale and to keep everybody productive and happy by building loyalty. But I had a lot of qualified and very talented people; many of them are still in the sport today.” Going on, he says, “I know it’s an overused cliché, but we were really a family. Everybody cared about making the event better – many returned a few years ago for a huge “family” reunion.”
When pressed about the key reasons for the Classic’s success, he comments, “You can’t really say that we were thinking outside the box … there wasn’t even any ‘box’ then. We were just sort of creatively vamping as we went.” But a key theme he repeatedly returns to is that idea of thinking of a cycling event as entertainment – like a precursor to today’s reality TV shows.
Remarkably, the Coors Classic never had a budget of much over $1 million, even for a 16-day race at the time. And it never lost money. In those days TV paid a rights fee, and the race received a further theatrical rights fee from Warner Bros to film segments of its Kevin Costner-headlined film, American Flyers. Cities paid a reasonable amount, and fronted hospitality for the 300+ race entourage. Year-round merchandise sales contributed all profits to the race operating budget and the staff was paid moderate salaries. It was one of the sport’s major professional global events, and although Aisner says he “never really made any money of note in the sport,” he clearly relishes his role and legacy in building and enriching American cycling. In 2005, he was inducted into the U.S. Cycling Hall of Fame.
He worries that some race promoters today may be getting too greedy and that some of the problems we see today result from the trend to separate ownership and management of events. “I’m afraid that some promoters today opt to do what’s easiest, rather than figuring out a way to do what’s right,” he says. But spend a few minutes with Michael Aisner and you will find that he is still passionately interested in the sport, and eager to have a voice in addressing the challenges pro cycling faces today.