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How the Tour de Trump helped put US pro cycling on the map

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3 Nov 2020
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It is Election Day in the USA and it just so happened that one of the candidates was responsible for putting cycling on the map in the States

Words: Trevor Ward

Of all the epithets you could apply to Donald Trump, ‘cycling visionary’ probably isn’t the first that springs to mind. Yet 31 years ago, Trump put his name to a bike race in the US that he envisaged would rival the Tour de France.

With modesty typical of the man, he called it the ‘Tour de Trump’. Filling the gap left by the disbanded Coors Classic, it would attract some of the biggest names in the sport in its short but eventful lifespan.

USA Cycling CEO Derek Bouchard-Hall credits the race with raising the profile of US cycling around the world, while its organiser Mike Plant – now on the UCI Management Committee – helped bring last the 2015 road World Championships to Richmond, Virginia, which featured in the inaugural Tour de Trump in 1989. 

Right from the start, the event lived up to its sponsor’s larger-than-life reputation, with a mix of soap opera farce, political controversy and glitzy decadence.

On the sporting front, Norway’s Dag Otto Lauritzen took the overall honours in 1989 – and the $50,000 first prize – beating a field that included 1988 Giro d'Italia winner Andy Hampsten, 1986 Tour de France winner Greg LeMond and 1987 Paris-Roubaix winner Eric Vanderaerden. 

The original idea was actually conceived by John Tesh, a TV sports reporter and pop music composer who had just covered the Tour de France for CBS.

However it was Turmp, the billionaire property developer and now 45th President of the United States, who saw the commercial potential. 

As well as putting up a prize pot of $250,000 – a fifth of what the Tour de France offered – and suggesting a criterium around the White House (which the secret service politely declined), Trump insisted the race should carry his name.

Asked later why he didn’t call it the Tour of USA, he replied, ‘A lot of the racers came because of the name. I would like to make this the equivalent of the Tour de France.’

Among the pro teams lured by the Trump name were two of Europe’s top three: PDM and Panasonic-Isostar, who both decided to skip the Vuelta a Espana, which was taking place at the same time, and head across the Atlantic instead.

PDM’s manager at the time, Jan Gisbers, told Sports Illustrated, ‘One of the biggest reasons we came was that Trump was the sponsor. With a man like him, we knew it would be good.’

Panasonic-Isostar manager Peter Post was equally effusive in his praise: ‘The name Trump is good in Europe. Trump's style is fantastic.’ 

As well as eight pro teams, the 114-strong field also included 11 amateur teams, including the Soviet national squad, led by 23-year-old Olympic team pursuit gold medalist Viatcheslav Ekimov, and a six-man squad from the Netherlands that was sponsored by Sauna Diana, an Amsterdam brothel.

‘The largest in Holland with beautiful girls’, one team member boasted at the time. 

The 10-stage, 1,347km race started in Albany, New York, and finished in Atlantic City, New Jersey, taking in New York City and the states of Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland along the way.

Mountain stages included the Catskill and Blue Ridge Mountains, but the toughest climb came on the very first day when seven riders were forced to dismount and push during the two-mile ascent of Platte Clove Road in heavy rain.

Dutch rider Steven Rooks, King of the Mountains in the previous year’s Tour, said the climb was as difficult as any he’d ridden in Europe.

This being a Trump enterprise, controversy was never far away. At the end of stage one, riders were greeted by dozens of protestors with placards declaring: ‘Fight Trumpism’, ‘Die Yuppie $cum’ and ‘Trump = Lord of the Flies’.

Most riders, however, gave the event the thumbs up, praising the organisation and the passionate crowds. 7-Eleven rider Davis Phinney – current pro Taylor’s dad – told the New York Times, ‘We came into Richmond and for 20 miles the road was lined with people. They were cheering for everybody.’

Trump himself was delighted, and announced ambitious plans to make the Tour de Trump a coast-to-coast race.

But after just one more edition (won, presumably rather annoyingly for Trump, by Mexican rider Raul Alcala), Trump pulled the plug because of mounting debts in his property empire. The DuPont Corporation took over the sponsorship in 1991, and the race ran until 1996, with a young Lance Armstrong winning the final two editions. 

USA Cycling’s Bouchard-Hall, who raced in the 1995 edition, told Politico magazine earlier this year, ‘I would definitely say the Tour de Trump was great for American cycling.

'Ultimately a wildly successful endeavour which raised the profile of American cycling internationally and, within the US, raised the profile of the sport of cycling.’

As Donald Trump takes up residence in the White House, for a generation of US cyclists he may always have claim to be seen as the saviour of the sport they love.