Peter Rich, a Bay Area cycling legend, stopped by to see Jobst Brandt in Palo Alto last night and share some memories among cycling friends.
Peter recently shut down his iconic bike shop Velo Sport in Berkeley, Calif., after nearly 50 years of business. In many ways, Velo Sport Bicycles and Palo Alto Bicycles, where Jobst frequently visited, have a lot in common, including both stores being located at a University Avenue address and next to famous universities!
They hosted bike racing teams and races over the decades. I asked Peter about the 1971 Tour of California, the first international stage race held in the U.S. Track racing ruled the sport leading up to the 1950s when road racing came on the scene.
Peter organized and funded the tour at a time when U.S. stage racing was still a closet sport. The Greg LeMonds and Lance Armstrongs of the world would not arrive for another 15-20 years.
First Peter had to secure permission from the California Highway Patrol (CHP). He sent seven letters to the districts that they were riding through. “I got a range of responses from ‘good luck’ to ‘you’ll be arrested,’” he said.
Bear Valley start
The racers took off on Saturday, Aug. 28, from Bear Valley, a ski resort located at 7,000 feet in the Sierra. Some 80 racers would cover 885 miles in 10 stages, which included some hard climbing over Carson, Ebbetts and Pacific Grade passes.
On stage 1 racers sped down Hwy 108 to Stockton and on the way dozens and dozens of cars piled up behind the peloton. This was an open course race with no CHP directing traffic on the two-lane road. At one point a CHP officer pulled ahead, got out of his car and started waving riders over to stop the race.
“The pack just rode around him and kept going,” Peter recalled. Fortunately, the race continued without CHP intervention. “We agreed to limit the number of follow cars,” Peter said.
The official follow cars were yellow Ford Pintos donated by the car maker. You can see them in the videos posted on YouTube.
Competitors came from all over, including Canada and Mexico. For the first time, Peter saw evidence of doping among racers. A Mexican rider who appeared to be high on speed was so disoriented he lined up at the starting line pointed in the wrong direction!
Our most notable U.S. racer, John Howard, had a rough go, crashing into a truck coming over a hill. Howard managed to continue the race.
So why wasn’t there a second Tour of California? “I lost $50,000,” Peter said. Raleigh, Ford and other sponsors failed to pay out money promised before the race. “They complained there was a recession,” Peter said.
All that’s left now is the memories and grainy video. Laurie Schmidtke gives an excellent blow-by-blow account of his Tour of California experience from the peloton. Check it out.