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.

Jonathan_Vaughters_CA_2011
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.

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.