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Original Issue

The Zinger was a real humdinger

Over the Colorado mountains, across the valleys and into exhaustion, the cyclists found that eight days and 600 miles of agony aren't everybody's cup of tea

The Red Zinger Classic is one of cycling's sternest tests. It is a torturous eight-day series of races over the mountains and through the hamlets of Colorado, the riders laboring across snowy passes that would spook a skier and pushing along interminable stretches of sultry flatlands. All the while they are broiled by the sun, pelted by hail, harassed by dogs and bathed in sweat. The winners are the survivors.

Imagine pedaling up a mountain road that would make the family V-8 cough, then racing down the other side at 65 mph, careening around hairpin curves that threaten to turn you into a two-wheeled glider and then, in the middle of it, realizing that you have 90 more miles to go today and another week ahead of you.

Put it all together, and it is North America's biggest amateur bicycle race. Paradoxically, it is also the world's richest. In cycling, amateurs are allowed to receive up to $200 a day in prize money, and they can earn even more through covert payments from their teams. "You might say it's illegal to give someone a $20 bill but legal to give them 20 $1 bills," confided one official. Lured by the Zinger's $42,000 in money and merchandise—including a Volkswagen Rabbit to the men's overall winner—national teams from Australia, Colombia, Mexico. Holland, Switzerland, New Zealand and Great Britain, as well as the U.S. National Club, showed up last week.

The Classic began with time trials and a 75-mile Criterium through the streets of Boulder and ended last Saturday with a 49-mile Criterium around one of the town's parks. Between those events, the 152 men and women riders flogged themselves on the hairy mountain roads between Vail and Aspen and on the bubbling tar of Denver's streets, the week and a day's activities adding up to a stunning 600 miles of racing.

To do well in an international stage race like the Zinger takes more than an undeveloped pain threshold and overdeveloped quadriceps, the thigh muscles that identify serious riders by almost hanging over their kneecaps. It also takes teamwork, strategy, guile and sometimes cheating. One cyclist was disqualified when he hitched onto the side of a truck going up a mountain. Another was banned from further competition for failing to take his dope test. Several times riders almost came to blows over gamesmanship, such as forcing a rider to thrash into the wind at the head of the field, courting exhaustion while the others conserve their strength in a pack behind.

This was the fourth Zinger, an event started in 1975 by Mo Siegel, the 28-year-old president of Celestial Seasonings, a Boulder-based herbal tea company whose best-selling product is called Red Zinger, and his partner, John Hay. Like many Coloradans exhilarated by mountain air and organic food, Siegel frequently says such things as "I'm into health." In fact, the local health craze is so pervasive that it spills over into assault and battery. Last week an elderly Greeley woman threw a large chunk of frozen cauliflower at her 78-year-old roommate. By the time police arrived, however, the tussle was over and the two women had cooked the missile and were peaceably eating it.

Siegel sees the bicycle as a panacea for everything from clogged arteries, both human and concrete, to fallen arches, and the Red Zinger played to enthusiastic crowds; some 40,000 gathered in North Boulder Park on Saturday to watch the final event and to groove on the sound of humming wheels and panting riders.

All through the week, interest centered on the developing individual duel between Wayne Stetina, the defending Zinger champion and current U.S. road titlist, and George Mount, an exuberant 22-year-old from Lafayette, Calif. who finished sixth in the individual road race at the Montreal Olympics, the best showing ever made by an American. Stetina, 24, is a member of the "Wandering Stetinas," a nomadic clan that is based in Indianapolis but spends most of its time traveling around the country winning bike races. The family includes Dale, 22, who was on his brother's team in the Zinger, as well as Roy, the boys' father and coach. "I guess we go about 40,000 miles a year," said the elder Stetina, who has two younger sons, Joel, 17, and Troy, 14, pedaling their way up in the sport.

As expected, the Zinger's early team leaders were the Dutch, who were particularly adept at blocking and sprinting in the flat racing, despite a certain helplessness on the hills because of the pancake terrain back home. In fact, to practice climbing, the Dutchmen use the gentle grades of expressway exit ramps, the only hills in Holland. Thus they were handicapped when the racing moved into the mountains, first with the Boulder Mountain Road Race, in which winner Phillip Anderson of Australia had to overcome fog, a hailstorm and chilling rain along the 93-mile run, and then in the 98-mile Aspen-to-Vail event, in which the cyclists were tested by the 12,000-foot Independence Pass. Plinio Casas, a Colombian, won that one, averaging just over 23 mph to finish in 4:11.10, three seconds ahead of Bob Cook, a Coloradan from Englewood.

With six stages of the Classic completed last Thursday morning, Wayne Stetina had two seconds and good showings in other events to take the overall individual lead. In total time he was 1:41 ahead of Tom Prehn, Mount's teammate on the U.S. squad. Mount, meanwhile, was mired in eighth, 3:12 back. In spite of his position, he was complaining that the racing was too easy. The tougher the better for Mount. He had finished fourth in this year's Milk Race in England, a 14-day, 1,100-mile grind that the U.S. team entered during a three-month trip to Europe. Wayne Stetina, preferring to train for the Zinger, declined to join the tour, which ruffled feelings a bit because he is a two-time Olympian. His brother Dale was recuperating from an automobile accident and also did not go abroad. The Stetinas consequently were a little smug about holding a 2:22 lead over the U.S. riders in the team competition.

But Thursday was the day of the dreaded Morgul-Bismark race, a grueling 92-mile test over a 13-mile route on the outskirts of Boulder. The only thing charming about the Morgul-Bismark is its name, which stems from the two cyclists who first tackled it several years ago. One had a cat named Morgul, the other a dog named Bismark. The course was "an all-out pump," meaning that the riders had no time for coasting. The route is virtually treeless, with only brief bursts of shade, and naturally the race took place when the temperature was in the 90s.

Both Wayne and Dale Stetina have outstanding academic records—Wayne graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Indiana University and Dale has a 4.0 average as a junior at IU—but on this day they were outmaneuvered. Early in the race Mount blasted away from the pack, with Alan Kingsbery of Lima, Ohio joining him, and inexorably the pair opened a lead. They were alone with their pain over the final 60 miles, eyes downcast as they attacked the course's fearsome stretches, one called "The Hump," the other "The Wall," a particularly horrible 200-yard incline at the finish. While Mount and Kingsbery took turns pacing each other, the Stetinas were trapped back in the pack, blocked in their efforts to break away, and slowly becoming exhausted. Their father, Roy, stood impatiently along the road as Mount lengthened his lead. (He eventually finished nine minutes and 25 seconds ahead of Wayne.) "It's now or never," someone called to Wayne near the finish. "It's never," Stetina wheezed back, his strength gone. He dropped nearly 3½ minutes on the final lap alone.

"Today was George Mount's day," said Mike Neel, the coach of the U.S. team. "We told him to show his teeth, and he did." Neel, who had put a sign in the window of the team station wagon that read THINK RABBIT, had approached several riders who were low in the standings and had asked them to help block the Stetinas. "Wayne and Dale had to do all the pulling," said Mark Pringle of the U.S. team. "We let them die out there on their bikes."

The Stetinas were upset, claiming chicanery. "People were blocking who had nobody up ahead in the lead, and that's illegal," claimed Roy. And insiders buzzed that financial inducements were used to get the other riders on the U.S. team's side. "I heard one rider say before the race, 'My money's in the bank,' " said one man. "Cycling has its Mafia," said another.

At any rate, Mount's showing lifted both him and his teammates into insurmountable leads, assuring victory since only two stages remained, both Criteriums in which it was all but impossible to make up significant time. But just to make sure, Neel instructed U.S. team mechanic Steve Aldridge to closely guard the bikes in case of sabotage. "Sometimes things come loose on a bicycle that shouldn't come loose," said Aldridge.

But in the last two days everything hung together. Large crowds showed up in Denver's Washington Park on Friday and in Boulder on Saturday as the Europeans again took center stage in the flat racing, Switzerland's Marcel Summermatter winning the first event and Belgium's Noel DeJonckheere the second. And the fans cheered as Keetie Van Oosten-Hage of Holland raced to overall victory in the women's division. The last notable attack came on Saturday when Stetina raced to second, a bike length behind DeJonckheere, to take third place overall, behind Bob Cook.

And so after eight days and more than 600 arduous miles, the Red Zinger Classic finally was over. The racers straggled away, red from the sun but with very little zing left.