LEMOND, ARMSTRONG COULD’VE BEEN PART OF REDLANDS CLASSIC LEGACY

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

Downtown Redlands was failing, say, early 1980s.

Anyone remember that?

It needed saving. Business was down. Anxieties were up. The future of this glorious community seemed to be on the line. Would business owners be able to survive?

Always turn to sporting events for the answer.

Mayor Carole Beswick, councilman Dick Larsen, plus a contributing member of Redlands society, Denmark’s Peter Brandt, who had professional connections to bicycle racing, concocted a plan.

Carole Beswick
Former Redlands Mayor Carole Beswick launched the biggest sports plan ever in city history to claim a spot in the sports world by organizing the Redlands Bicycle Classic.

There were plenty of others, including Craig Kundig, a local business owner whose future commitment as Race Director might have led to some of the events’ greatest growth.

Craig Kundig
Former Redlands Bicycle Classic race director Craig Kundig, who is still part of the committee, delivered several stunning additions and ideas during his days.

On the heels of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games, at which U.S. cyclists like Alexi Grewal (road race) and Steve Hegg (time trials) came away with gold medals, the feeling was simple:

Why not bring professional cycling event to Redlands?

It was a clean-air sport. Shutting down city streets, opening it up to pro cycling, seemed to be a cool answer. Would the city’s residents respond well?

When Davis Phinney, a top USA cyclist from Team 7-Eleven, won the 1986 Redlands Classic, he was asked to reflect his experiences in racing at the famed Tour de France.

He was amenable for a while. Phinney, though, recognized what his Redlands victory really meant.

“Let’s talk,” he said, taking full control of the post-event media interviews, “about the Tour of Redlands.”

Lurking behind the crowd in the media center – the basement of a local bank – Beswick & Co. cheered the moment. Phinney was, perhaps, the USA’s top cycling spokesman. Talking it up about Redlands could only help the cause.

Team 7-Eleven shouldn’t have even been racing at Redlands. The team was racing in Europe when civil unrest was taking place. Said Kundig: “They just decided to get out of there and come out here.”

“Out here” was Redlands.

Thirty-four years later, not only has the Redlands Bicycle Classic survived, but it’s thriving.

Throughout the preceding 33 years, the event has moved from its Memorial Day weekend, thrust itself into February, March and April offerings. This year, it was back in May.

The reason was simple: In late May, the globe’s best teams were setting up for races back east or even in Europe. Those teams’ budgets weren’t big enough to withstand travel back to the west coast for Redlands.

Redlands wanted to build its race on the backs of cycling’s best.

By shifting its calendar dates to the beginning of the season, teams that often train in California could easily schedule at Redlands.

There was even a street sprint in downtown Redlands on State Street, perhaps taking advantage of track specialist Johnny Bairos, who won that stage, incidentally, against the biggest names in U.S. racing.

Bairos, a Redlands product, went on to the 2000 Sydney Olympics. To this date, Bairos is the only local product to ever win a stage of the Redlands Classic.

Plenty of other winners came from overseas – Russia and Great Britain, France and Germany, Canada, Poland, Switzerland and South America, to name a few.

Historically speaking, the Redlands Bicycle Classic may have no equal as an athletic event throughout San Bernardino County.

The white elephant in the room for cycling, of course, is its drug scandals, which have rocked the sport.

Consider this: The Redlands Classic has long since tested athletes for drugs. There have been no disqualifications.

Three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond comes to mind.

Greg LeMond
Three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond never did race at the Redlands Bicycle Classic. But the remarkable cyclist, who overcame getting shot, bounced back to win again overseas. Eventually, he showed up at Redlands to lead a Fun Ride (photo by Wikipidia Commons).

We’re wondering, out loud, that if cycling’s rampant doping regimen hadn’t taken place if he would’ve eventually shown up to Redlands at Redlands.

Cycling would’ve been a clean sport. While the peleton of lesser-gifted cyclists passed an un-drugged Le Mond, he might’ve brought a team to Redlands.

Redlands was always beckoning to cycling’s top stars to come and race.

The guess here is that he’d have shown up in, say, 1994, 1995, who knows?

That’s the kind of reach the Redlands Bicycle Classic has.

LeMond, incidentally, did come to Redlands one year. He’d retired. Showed up here, courtesy of the organizers, to lead a Fun Ride. He spent time with a couple of us media types – Paul Oberjuerge of the San Bernardino Sun and me – in the board room of a downtown Redlands bank.

There was a hint – but nothing stated out loud – that something was wrong with cycling.

Lance Armstrong had yet to unload a series of victories in the Tour de France.

Lance Armstrong
There was a story circulating in the late 1990s that Lance Armstrong, who had been suffering from testicular cancer, would not only recover but make his comeback race at the Redlands Bicycle Classic (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

The redoubtable Kundig once confided to me that Armstrong, suffering from the ravages of testicular cancer, might show up to Redlands at, of all places, Redlands in his comeback event.

Kundig gave me that impression more than a few times. I believe he was hoping. Armstrong had yet to win a single Tour de France, but he was about to launch a fabulous – later stripped from the history books – career in Europe.

“It was on their schedule to come here … with Lance,” said Kundig. “He made the decision on his own to go straight from here to Europe.”

The Postal team, at that time, was training in nearby Palm Springs. Kundig was riding, ironically, next to Armstrong during a training ride in the Coachella Valley. He asked Armstrong about the plans.

“He told me, ‘That was the plan (to race at Redlands), but I decided that I’m going to Europe.’ ”

His U.S. Postal Service team had landed at Redlands with four straight champions – Tomas Brozyna, Dariusz Baranowski, Jonathan Vaughters and Christian Vande Velde. All were featured players on Armstrong’s Postals.

Imagine the publicity of Armstrong-at-Redlands.

L.A. Times.

Sports Illustrated.

ESPN.

CNN.

The joint would’ve been rocking.

But Armstrong picked his comeback race in Europe.

Too bad.

It’s spread from Redlands to Yucaipa and Loma Linda, Highland and Route 66 in North San Bernardino, in the nearby mountains of Crestline, even to the Fontana-based Auto Club Speedway, plus Mt. Rubidoux over in Riverside, plus a road stage that wound its way past Lake Mathews.

The final two days have always been reserved for Redlands – finish line on Citrus Ave. – where the city can highlight its downtown image a la the original Beswick-Larsen dream.

All they needed was a plan.

It’s been long billed as an event “Where Legends Are Born.” That’s based on the fact that top-racing Redlands competitors often bolt for bigger races and become hugely successful overseas.

Original champion Thurlow Rogers, 1985, may have set the tone for that theme.

NEXT WEEK: The Tour de France connect with Redlands.