BAIROS’ ANNIVERSARY: OLYMPIC HOPES RESTED ON HIS BIKE SPEED

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, NASCAR, the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

It’s September 17, the anniversary of a 2000 Sydney Olympic Games appearance.

After 34 years of Redlands Bicycle Classic mastery, The Johnny Bairos Story might fall somewhere through the cracks.

To this date, Bairos is the lone local cyclist who had ever found himself standing on the podium – first in a stage – after winning a downtown Street Sprint Prolog.

Kristin Holmes Bairos and Olympian Johnny Bairos
Johnny Bairos, the 1998 Street Sprint Prolog champion at the 14th Redlands Bicycle Classic, is the lone local product ever to win a stage at the now 34-year-old event (photo by Hollynet.com).

He was, in fact, going to be an Olympian. Bairos was considered a speed-whiz on a bike. He wasn’t a road cyclist or a criterium specialist. In a regular time trial, he was probably underwhelming. In a short race of a few hundred yards, he was your man.

It’s how Redlands Classic officials set it up in 1998. Armed with a myriad of world-class road racers at the 14th annual Redlands cycling clash, Bairos landed on a Sunshine Germany team.

Organizers set it up on State Street.

In a week dominated by U.S. Postal’s Jonathan Vaughters, who was chased throughout the weekend by future Tour de France champion Cadel Evans, plus team duels set up with Navigators, Volvo-Cannondale, Shaklee and the Postals.

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Jonathan Vaughters overcame a Street Sprint Prolog loss to local rider Johnny Bairos to win the 1998 Redlands Bicycle Classic, then racing for U.S. Postal (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

The 20-year-old Bairos out-quicked all comers in the opening street sprint.

Bairos, for his part, was trying to claim a spot in the 2000 Olympic Games.

A couple years later, I had a chance to chat with him for a story on his destination for Sydney, Australia.

He was a track sprinting sensation, officially named to the U.S. Olympic cycling team by a female United States Cycling Federation official.

“I’ve gone the entire emotional spectrum,” Bairos said. “On both sides. This is so much more of a relief to hear her say it. I couldn’t be happier.”

Bairos, who found out he was on the team, had to pass a 45-minute physical by USCF doctor Gloria Beim on July 22, 2000. She flew from Colorado to examine Bairos, who was just shaking off the effects of a near-fatal crash while competing in the World Cup Cycling Championships at Mexico City on June 17.

Beim put Bairos through a virtual torture test, ranging from sprints, starts, riding, plus examining his knee and the rest of his body.

“I think she was extremely surprised to see how well I was doing,” Bairos said. “She saw the force in my starts, the strength in my legs, and the only thing that was wrong was there was a little infection in my knee.”

THE CRASH, FALL IN MEXICO

Bairos was sailing along in perfect health and a lock for an Olympics berth before the disastrous fall during the Keirin portion of the World Cup in which he went more than 20 feet over the track railing.

The torturous numbers – a 25-foot fall, seven days in the hospital, a non-finished 750-meter race.

“As soon as I went over the rail, I knew I was in trouble,” Bairos said last month after returning to the Inland Empire. “I just closed my eyes and prayed.”

During the race, a Venezuelan rider pushed his way to the front, forcing a French rider to react so he wouldn’t fall. They got tangled up and a Swiss rider behind Bairos hit his rear wheel, causing the chain-reaction crash.

The results were devastating.

A shattered right sinus cavity. A fractured left sinus cavity. A gash on his chin. Black eyes. Missing teeth. A broken jaw. Cuts, bruises and contusions all over his body. Doctors had to wire his jaw shut so his face could heal. Two screws were placed in his kneecap.

A little over two years earlier, he’d been celebrating a 200-yard downtown sprint win over guys like Vaughters, Evans, Trent Klasna, Chris Horner and a bunch more.

Bairos had surgery in Mexico then was transported to Loma Linda University Medical Center, where he had additional surgery.

“I learned that I never count my chickens before they’re hatched,” said Bairos.

In August, he said, “I’m not quite 100 percent. But I’m extremely close. Once it gets time to race, it’s not a question of being 100 percent. It’s a question of being 110 percent, 120 percent, 130 percent.”

ONE SECOND AWAY FROM QUALIFYING

Bairos had been regarded as the United States’ best cycling starter from a standing or stop position. He will lead off in the newly added sprint event, followed by longtime teammate and friend Marcelo Arrue, then by track veteran Jonas Carney.

“Nobody can go 200 meters from a stop position like Johnny can,” Redlands Bicycle Classic official Craig Kundig said. “That’s what he does, and he’s the best in the country. That’s why they have him leading off.”

There was no question in the minds of USCF officials that Bairos was the best man for the ride, so when the organization named the Olympic team in early July, it held open a spot for him until a deadline for submitting the roster.

“It was whether I was healthy enough to fill the spot,” he said.

And after passing the physical, it’s on to Sydney.

Bairos won a gold medal in the 1999 Pan American Games at Winnipeg, Manitoba (Canada). He had three top-four finishes in World Cup competition and five top-10 finishes in national events.

“It’s usually dominated by the French, but the Spanish team has been giving them a tough time the last nine months,” he said. “There’s a big gap between them and everybody else.”

Bairos, who was an alternate in the match sprint and the Keirin (never seeing action in either), seemed clairvoyant.

The United States had hopes of contending for at least a bronze medal in team sprint. Bairos said France and Spain have the top two Olympic sprint teams in the world.

The race was on Sept. 17. He was on a team sprint lineup with USA’s Jonas Carney and Christian Arrue. Ripping off to a speed of 36 ½ miles an hour, the trio didn’t qualify off a 46-second clocking, last place in a field of 12.

A 45.701 clocking would’ve been enough to advance.

Bairos’ clairvoyance paid off: Eventually, France beat Great Britain for the gold medal.

TOUR DE FRANCE: THERE’S A CONNECTION TO REDLANDS

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

It’s a connection that defies imagination.

In the 2005 Tour de France (TDF) alone, a string of cyclists had Redlands Classic ties.

Floyd Landis and Francisco Mancebo, Cadel Evans and Santiago Botero, plus David Zabriskie – cycling stars who had long lifted themselves into the cycling spotlight. Landis, an eventual winner who had the title stripped for doping, and Evans were eventual champs.

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Two-time Redlands Bicycle Classic champion Francisco Mancebo, has a string of top 10 Tour de France finishes (photo by Wikipedia).

Mancebo was a top 10 finisher a handful of times.

Botero, who later admitted to doping, was good in the TDF mountains.

Zabriskie, a time trial stage winner, was also relegated for doping.

This could be the missing piece that Redlands area fans are missing: The Tour de France (TDF). It’s the crown jewel of cycling. Besmirched a bit by the noted drug scandals, notably 7-time champion Lance Armstrong, plenty of other cyclists have clean enough backgrounds.

It’s not hard to keep track of the scandalous cyclists.

All evil-doing has largely gone ignored, at least officially, by RBC. The focus is on the roads. To anyone’s knowledge, no cyclist has ever failed drug tests at Redlands.

Even back in the earliest days of the Redlands Classic, Team 7-Eleven’s Jacque Boyer was the first U.S. cyclist who showed up in the fabled Tour de France.

Phinney’s 1986 Redlands Classic victory was only a prelude to a great career. The 7-Eleven cyclist became the first American to win a stage at the TDF.

That doesn’t even begin to cover the connections between TDF and RBC.

U.S. Postal Service cyclist Jonathan Vaughters, the 1998 Redlands champion, was a former U.S. national time trials champion. When he won that deadly mountainous climb to snowy Oak Glen in 1998, he sat in a team car musing over his future in Europe.

“This time in a couple of months,” said Vaughters, “I’m really hoping I can be one of Lance Armstrong’s lieutenants in the mountains of Europe.”

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Jonathan Vaughters won at Redlands, hoping to land a spot with the U.S. Postal Service squad in Europe where he would be a lieutenant in the Lance Armstrong quest to win more races, including the Tour de France (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

A lieutenant’s role is simple: To keep a team’s race leader fresh for the finish of each stage.

He was trying to pay his dues at places like Redlands.

Christian Vande Velde, who capped U.S. Postal’s 4-year streak of winning at Redlands, won in 1999 by 39 seconds. Nine years later, he took fourth in the Tour de France, trailing winner Carlos Sastre by 3:05.

Vande Velde was seventh one year later. In 2011, he was a lieutenant to Tom Danielson – third, RBC 2003 – in a top 10 finish.

Evgeniy Berzin, the 1989 RBC champion, has won a stage at the TDF.

Dmitri Zhadanov, the 1990 RBC champion, rode in four TDF peletons.

The Poland pair: Tomas Brozyna and Dariusz Baranowski raced for world-renowned U.S. Postal, Armstrong’s team.

Baranowski, 1995 RBC champion, was a 5-time Tour de France starter with a 12th place finish in 1998.

Brozyna was 22nd at the Tour de France in 2003, winning RBC in 1996.

Botero, for Rock Racing, was Tour de France’s fifth best climber in 2005.

At the 2008 RBC, the Colombian rolled to a 54-second win over Chris Baldwin.

Zabriskie, runner-up to 4-time RBC champion Chris Horner in 2000, is a 7-time TDF starter, even capturing a stage in 2011. Like Armstrong, Landis and others, some of Zabriskie’s results have been stricken from the records.

Tour_de_l'Ain_2009_-_Chris_Horner_(cropped)
Chris Horner, the only four-time winner of the Redlands Bicycle Classic, took off for the European jewels of cycling, including the Tour de France where he was a top 10 finisher (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

Speaking of Horner: Just after winning his fourth Redlands tour, he pronounced himself unlikely to ever get a shot at a berth in the TDF. Eventually, he got seven shots at the fabled Tour de France. He took ninth in 2010.

Then there’s Mancebo, one of Spain’s all-time greats.

Amid a flurry of top career finishes – Tour of California, Redlands champion, plus a string of European successes – the cyclist known as “Paco” on the peleton has a string of top 10 Tour de France finishes.

Ninth in 2000, seventh in 2001, 10th in 2003, sixth in 2004, his best ride in the French classic was a brilliant fourth place finish in 2005. It could actually be viewed as a second place finish since Armstrong, the winner, along with third place Jan Ullrich, were both eliminated from official results for testing PED positive.

That was evidence some clean cyclists remained on the peleton.

It was in 1998 that Australian 20-year-old Cadel Evans showed up at Redlands. It took the all-out efforts of the mighty U.S. Postal Service squad to keep Evans out of the yellow jersey.

Cadel_Evans_-_Criterium_du_Dauphiné_2012_-_1ere_étape
Cadel Evans showed up at the 1998 Redlands Bicycle Classic almost at the last minute, but wound up coming up just 20 seconds short to place second that year. Thirteen years later, the Australian cyclist won the 2011 Tour de France (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

Vaughters, aided by another future Tour de France combatant Tyler Hamilton, barely edged Evans in the chase to Oak Glen. Evans chased Vaughters the remainder of Redlands, losing by just 20 seconds.

In 2011, Evans, a two-time Tour de France runner-up, capped his career by winning the Tour de France. He retired a few years later.

NEXT WEEK: Name the woman and, chances are, she’s raced at Redlands.