By: Alan D. Fischer
Arizona bicycle road racing has changed a lot during its long and colorful
history. Items that would be considered antiquities today, like wool shorts
and jerseys, leather hairnet helmets, toe straps and bikes with only 10
gears (no indexing, of course) were good enough to use, and good enough to
win with back then.
After losing much of its popularity to the motor car, bike racing began to
return after World War II in scattered areas of the country. The sport
migrated here from other areas as participants moved to the state. The
University of Arizona, which attracted students from across the nation, was
a fertile ground for racers to get together and train.
Two of the earliest Arizona clubs were the Phoenix Comsumers’ Cycle Club and
the Tucson Wheelmen. They were the fertile soil from which the sport
germinated and grew.
The first recorded bicycle race in the modern area was April 28, 1968 when a
handful of racers from Phoenix and Tucson tackled the climb of Mt. Lemmon
north of Tucson. Mike Keller won the climb with a time of 2 hours, 20
minutes for the 31-mile event. Karl Broberg finished second, 10 minutes
behind. The event was stopped by local law enforcement officials not used to
seeing packs of cyclists on the roads. The race was stopped and riders were
admonished to ride single file up the climb, with no passing allowed. But
after the officers left, racing resumed.
After the inaugural Mt. Lemmon event, races gradually became more plentiful.
A strong Phoenix vs. Tucson rivalry developed, as the riders duked it out
Arizonans developed a reputation as strong climbers. The Iron Horse Classic
which climbs Coal Bank and Molas Passes between Durango and Silverton,
Colorado, has seen numerous Arizona victors. John Timbers and Louella Holter
won two each, and Bob Cook and Tom Sain, who were Arizona residents for a
while, also won the event. Mark Wilson won the Senior 1-II event at
California’s San Gabriel Hill Climb as a junior. And Cook was strong in
several editions of the Red Zinger, which later became the Coors Classic.
Along with the Mt. Lemmon Hill Climb, another challenging climbing events
was the Mining Country Classic, which included three long mountains in its
93 mile circuit through Miami, Superior and Globe. Even though the event
attracted top fields from the west, Arizona riders, like Tom Nesdill,
The prize jewel of Arizona racing has been La Vuelta de Bisbee. Growing from
a point to point road race from Tucson to Bisbee, the race has grown to one
of the nation’s top stage races. John Timbers was instrumental in the
development of the race, and many others have worked hard to make it what it
A skinny blond 16-year-old kid named Greg LeMond won the race in 1978,
spankling the best that American cycling had to offer and denying Bob Cook a
repeat of his win a year before. The stage race started out humbly, with a
time trial, road race, and flat criterium in Warren Park. Quite a difference
from the five-day extravaganza we see today.
Arizona also hosted the national championships in 1980. The road race was
brutal, covering about two-thirds of the steep uphill La Vuelta prologue
before plunging back down into town on the highway. The only flat part was
about 50 meters entering the finish area. Only a handful of riders finished,
as Dale Stetina and Beth Heiden won the senior titles. Heiden and Tom
Doughty won the senior time trial jerseys. Local favorite and Bisbee
resident Tom Sain was favored in the time trial, but a mechanical ruined his
chances. In the team time trial event, Arizona placed third. Tom Sain
anchored the team, and Doug Brawley, Ross Potoff and Bob Reis aided in the
bronze medal effort. Sain got sick and was unable to contest the road race
in front of his fans.
Arizona also hosted an international women’s race in 1978 that attracted
some of the world’s best cyclists to Tucson. The event itself was a huge
success, but experienced sponsorship problems in the form of a lack of funds
to pay a big airline bill for bringing the riders across the Atlantic. The
ensuing legal hassles pretty much ended the Tucson Wheelmen for several
years until it was later revived by Andy Gilmour.
Currenty Olympian Kent Bostick began his racing career while attending
graduate school at the University of Arizona. In his early racing days his
mechanical abilities did not match is physical ones, and he regularly
experienced bike problems like having his bottom bracket fall out.
Family support was common and important in the early days. Families would
load up the car with bikes and go to the races. Mark and Tim Wilson, Mike
and Tom Nesdill, and Barry and Brian Smith, were all dominant riders both
locally and beyond.
The sport has grown dramatically from the time when Tom Kelly, a legendary
fixture in the early days, said he knew everyone in Tucson with a 10-speed
and a pair of black shorts. Today people enter the sport, try a few races
and drop out. There is very little of the continuity, and sense of
community, Arizona cycling once enjoyed.