The start of the 1988 racing season, pretty much worldwide, was the Tour of the Americas in the middle of February. It was a super series of races that had two separate races. The first part was in Venezuela. It was 3 hard road races. Then we all flew up to Florida for a 7 day stage race throughout Florida. A lot of the best riders in the world came to this race. It was a focus for my team, Wheaties/Schwinn. We spent a month in Orlando motor pacing to train.
The Europeans and Columbias killed everyone in Venezuela. Well, not completely. Greg Lemond and Roy Knickman both we in the top 10, which was pretty incredible considering the climbing involved. Back in the US, there obviously was going to be virtually no climbing at all in Florida.
The third stage was the longest stage of the race. I think it was close to 230 km (145 miles). It was from Orlando to Tampa. I knew the roads around Orlando well since I’d be training there for a month. The only two KOM sprints during the whole Florida portion of the race was a hill outside of Orlando. We’d ridden the hill dozens of times. The KOM consisted of riding to this hill, something like 35 miles into the stage, doing a 10 mile loop and doing the same hill again. It was a few thousand dollars to win the KOM. Davis Phinney was winning the race overall and his team was controlling the field.
So, I took off after about 20 miles alone. Roy (Knickman) yelled a joke to me as I went by pertaining to something about the stupidity of the move. I got to the first KOM pretty far ahead and then did the next 10 miles and won the 2nd. So, I was going to be wearing the mountain leaders jersey the rest of the race. And win the Mountains Competition. My team director, Mike Farrell drove up and told me I had 12 minutes. We talked a little while and we eventually came to a agreement that I should wait up for the field. I still had over a 100 miles to go.
So, I rode along at training pace, 20 mph for the next 30 minutes. Mike came back up and told me to wait. I asked him if he wanted me to just get off my bike and stand by the side of the road? He didn’t think that was so funny. A little while later, a Spanish guy from the Teka team attacked out of the field and was bridging. I rode along for over an hour before the Spanish rider caught. I was pretty far ahead. He pulled the next few miles to where there was a point/time bonus sprint. I smeared him. It was good $$$ and time. But, then he decided not to pull anymore. We were at 18 minutes by then. So, since I was leading the race, I started pulling while he sat. 30 miles up the road was another time bonus sprint. This time I only beat the guy by a little. I decided it was in my best interest to convince the guy to pull. So, I told him that he could win the stage. It took a bunch of hand signals and bad Spanish to convey that to him. He seemed utterly surprised. But completely into it. So we started rotating.
After just a couple miles, we turned a corner and there was a train stop blocking the race. The officials were already stopped. We rolled up to the train and stopped. I knew all the officials, but started my watch anyway. The Teka guy had his team car there and was downing little glass vials of vitamines and getting his legs rubbed. I asked the officials if they had any water. And what was going on. They said the had the time and that it was cool.
But right then, a train conductor came walking up with a tool and uncoupled the cars. Then he called ahead and they split the train. We had sat there over 4 minutes. We kind of just rolled away slowly, not quite understanding what we were supposed to do. We had a 120 miles on our legs and 25 more to go.
When we got going again, the Spanish guy was killing me. His “vitamines” seemed to be kicking in. I had assumed they held up the field the same time we were held up and that we still had a 10 minute cushion. We rode into Tampa on the Interstate over the huge causeway bridges. At the top of one of the bridges, I looked back and I could see the whole field in a huge echelon. I started pulling as hard as I could. The Spanish guy sat on for a little while and I told him once more he was uno on the stage. After that, he surged so hard I barely stayed on. Anyway, we got to the finish with 1:58 lead. True to my word, I let the Spanish guy win. I was leading on GC, but by how much?
I thought I was going to get 4 minutes back. No. They said it was the Act of God. We protested. There are two rules concerning trains in a bike race. One is the break gets stopped, then field gets stopped and you release the break that much time ahead. The next is the break makes it past the train, then the field gets stopped. Bad luck for the field. Act of God. But, there isn’t a rule that says the break gets stopped, then the officials call the train engineer and they come and split the train, after the break has sat there 4 minutes and then let the field go by with no time added. It was bullshit.
So, I had a little over a 1:30 lead with a hour TTT the next day, which 7-11 handily beat us. Not that badly, but I was 7 seconds out of the lead afterward. Davis got more time bonuses the next few days, but I ended up 2nd. Without that train, I would of won most likely. It was any extra $7000. I still won the KOM and was 2nd overall. Plus, it moved me up to 6th in the Super Series, which had a pretty great prize list on its own.
I never really understood the officials ruling to our protest. I knew most of them and was pretty positive that they were going to give me the time. All the riders in the race thought that we should get the time. I think it must of had something to do with who was “supposed” to win the race. It had to be a famous European pro or someone from the European based 7-11 team. They didn’t want a domestic pro winning a race so prestigious. Whatever. It makes a good story.
Tomorrow I’ll tell you about how the overall series played out. It was really strange.