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Sept 17, 2015 – When the 2015 UCI world road championships open in Richmond, Virginia, this Sunday, September 20, commentators will be recalling the last time the road worlds came to this country 29 years ago. It’s inevitable that this year’s worlds will be compared with those championships in Colorado Springs—but, truly, it’s impossible to compare the two events…as we shall see.

Written by John Wilcockson

Back in 1986, the UCI (the Union Cycliste Internationale) was divided into two separate bodies: FIAC (the Fédération Internationale Amateur de Cyclisme) headquartered in Rome and the much smaller FICP (Fédération International de Cyclisme Professionel) based in Luxembourg. And though it was the UCI that awarded the organization of the world championships to a different national cycling federation each year, the national federations on the amateur/Olympic side of the sport (FIAC) had far greater influence on the decision than those affiliated with the FICP. And when the ’86 worlds were awarded to the United States for the first time in 75 years, there were no professional teams in this country and only a handful of pro racers. (For instance, the year Jonathan Boyer became the first American to compete at the Tour de France, in 1961, the U.S. could scrape together just four men for that year’s pro worlds team: Boyer, pioneering European pros George Mount and John Eustice, and a 20-year-old Greg LeMond.)

Back then, the world track and road championships were combined, and the U.S. Cycling Federation (headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado) chose to organize the worlds in its backyard because it boasted a UCI-approved 333-meter velodrome—built as a training facility for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. There was talk that the road races should be held in Boulder, 100 miles to the north, where the challenging Morgul-Bismarck circuit was used each year for a popular Coors Classic stage—but the feds decided to keep the road races in the Springs. But not in the city itself (like the courses in Richmond next week), but on the sprawling campus of the U.S. Air Force Academy, a government facility, which sits on a hilltop in a fairly remote location 15 miles out of town. Its main advantage was that no public roads had to be closed.

Olympic cycling was still a decade away from being open to professionals—that happened at Atlanta in 1996—and the ’86 worlds reflected the sport’s strong amateur bias. For the track championships, there were six events for amateurs, four for professionals and two for women. These 12 events were held over a six-day period, starting on August 27, a Wednesday, and going through to September 1, Labor Day. The weather was mostly sunny with daytime temperatures in the 80s, and a few thousand spectators attended each of the evening sessions—not much different from crowds at track worlds in Europe.

The amateur events were dominated by the Soviet bloc countries, which had boycotted the LA Olympics two years earlier. The East Germans scored eight track medals, highlighted by sweeping the first four places in the match sprint. The pro races were of greater interest, with Japanese legend Koichi Nakano winning his 10th consecutive world sprint title, while three six-day stars, Britain’s Tony Doyle (5,000-meter pursuit), Switzerland’s Urs Freuler (50-kilometer points race) and Belgium’s Michel Vaarten (Keirin) were impressive in collecting the other three gold medals.

After the track teams moved out, the road racers moved in, many of them having just competed in the 16-day Coors Classic (won by Bernard Hinault ahead of his teammate and recent Tour de France winner LeMond, with Phil Anderson in third). The Coors ended on August 24, so riders chose different places to continue training for 10 days before traveling to the Springs. Aussie favorite Anderson stayed at the high-altitude Copper Mountain Resort with his Belgian trainer, who said, “Phil…has the most reserves of anyone.” LeMond, who ended the Coors with a flu, first attended a cycling symposium in Seattle before training for a week with Canadian buddy Steve Bauer near Lake Tahoe, Nevada. And classics specialist Moreno Argentin of Italy, who scored a solo Coors Classic stage win at Estes Park in the rain, trained in Colorado Springs, ending two days before the pro road race with a 200-kilometer ride on dirt roads climbing to 9,000 feet.

That same morning, in windswept late-summer sunshine, the amateur men contested the world team time trial championship on a 100-kilometer course comprising four 25-kilometer laps at the Air Force Academy—including a short section along closed lanes of Interstate 25. The Eastern bloc countries were expected to sweep the TTT medals, but four young Dutchmen— John Talen, Rob Harmeling, Gerrit De Vries and Tom Cordes, average age 20—led at every checkpoint to win at an average speed of 50 kilometers per hour. The Dutch national coach André Boskamp (today a riders’ agent) said their victory was due to riding the arduous Coors Classic against the pros rather than staying home competing in flat criterium races.

There were few spectators for that midweek team time trial, but the organizers were expecting 50,000 fans to drive down from the Denver metro area for the weekend’s road races and they had made room for 15,000 cars to park on the Academy campus. But the crowds didn’t show. The flagship event, the professional men’s road race, was held on the Saturday, rather than Sunday, because the eight-hour time differential meant that the live television broadcast could be shown at a peak viewing time (Saturday night) in Europe. But when the riders got up at 6 a.m. that September 6 morning, three hours before the start, the temperature was a near-freezing 33 degrees Fahrenheit! And by the time the race started the mountains where Argentin had been training in sunshine 48 hours earlier were hidden by a thick bank of clouds, while a misty rain hung in the unseasonably cold air all day long.

What’s more, the expected live TV coverage on USA network was thwarted when the helicopters needed to upload signals from the camera motos couldn’t fly in the foggy conditions. At the end of the day, the network broadcast just one hour of highlights. None of that mattered to spectators who showed up because this was before the widespread use of jumbotrons. But with thin, scattered crowds it was hard to drum up enthusiasm for the six-and-a-half-hour race. A few hundred true enthusiasts gathered on the circuit’s four short climbs, some with a sense of humor, including a group of Irish fans that waved a banner saying, “A legend in his own lunchtime, Sean Kelly has come to dine in Colorado.” Watching the peloton come by lap after lap in rain that resembled typical fall weather in Kelly’s native Tipperary, it wasn’t hard to imagine that year’s Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix winner taking an eventual bunch sprint….

But that’s not how the 1986 worlds went down. Looking back through my old copies of Winning: Bicycle Racing Illustrated, I found these words I wrote 29 years ago: “The opinion was unanimous at the end of the 17 laps [261.8 kilometers] of the U.S. Air Force Academy course—a great champion emerged from a very poor race. Pre-championship favorites Phil Anderson and Greg LeMond even went as far as saying, ‘That was the most negative world championships we have ridden.’ The whole race could be described in one sentence: After two insignificant attacks in the first four hours, a two-minute lead was established on lap 13 by 11 men, nine of whom lost contact before the finish, where Moreno Argentin of Italy out-sped Charly Mottet of France for the gold medal nine seconds ahead of the [70-strong] pack.” That was the underwhelming story of an event that should have been a highlight in American cycling history. Behind the two breakaway riders, the field sprint for the bronze medal was taken by a former world champ, Italy’s Giuseppe Saronni of Italy, ahead of Spain’s Juan Fernandez, with Kelly in fifth.

The awful conditions remained for the final day of the ’86 worlds, the women’s and amateur men’s road races. This is how that day was described by Connie Carpenter—who retired from racing after taking gold at the LA Olympic road race and remained a racer at heart: “Sunday’s women’s race was a nightmare in comparison [to the pro men’s race]. The weather was the worst in recent championship history, with a freezing drizzle, and there were far fewer spectators.”

After the field split on the last of four fast laps, it looked like the world’s top two women racers—American Rebecca Twigg and French phenom Jeannie Longo (who’d won the Coors Classic before defeating Twigg for the women’s track pursuit gold medal)—would sprint for the rainbow jersey. Instead, the American crashed and Longo rolled across the line alone, 10 seconds ahead of a six-strong chase group led in by U.S. team member Janelle Parks. “The sprint for second was exciting because it was such a surprise,” Carpenter wrote. “Janelle Parks broke into tears immediately after earning her silver medal, a reminder of the importance of this otherwise dismal day.” That day ended with East German Uwe Ampler taking the amateur road gold with a late solo attack.

This coming week in Richmond, there won’t be any track races—the track worlds are now held separately on indoor velodromes at the end of winter—but there will be plenty of bronze, silver and gold on offer, hopefully glinting in the Virginia sunshine. Cycling has changed so much in three decades that the focus of the road worlds is now on the professionals. The 2015 world championships kick off this Sunday with the team time trial for men’s and women’s pro teams (not national amateur squads), and the week will close on September 27 with the prestigious elite men’s road race. This time, you can bet there will be live TV images (broadcast to America and the world), a few jumbotrons around the circuit and, if things work out as planned by the Richmond organizers, the crowds will be numbered in the hundreds of thousands—not just the hundreds.

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You can follow John on Twitter @johnwilcockson