Publish date:

The Americans Were Very Big Wheels

When U.S. cyclist Connie Carpenter stepped onto the Olympic victory stand last Sunday under a broiling noonday sun, she bore lightly the burden of history. "I haven't had a chance to put it into perspective yet," she would say later of her epochal day. That's understandable enough. Carpenter had just defeated by approximately the length of a spoke her archrival and fellow American, Rebecca Twigg, in the women's 79.2-kilometer (49.2-mile) road race over a hilly and tortuous Mission Viejo course in 92° heat. She had started her sprint within 200 meters of the finish—"almost too late"—and had thrown her bike across the last white line in a manner reminiscent of youngsters playfully clearing a curb. It was also the last race for the 27-year-old, red-haired Boulder, Colo. cyclist who competed in the 1972 Winter Games as a speed skater and had also rowed on the women's crew at the University of California at Berkeley. Carpenter, winner of a record 12 national cycling championships, had announced before the race that she is retiring from competition, and she needed time to savor this last sweet victory.

But consider what she had done in the two hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds it took her to nip Twigg at the finish: She became the first U.S. gold medal winner in the 1984 Games; she became the winner of the first women's cycling event in Olympic history; she became the first U.S. cyclist to win a medal of any sort since one Carl Schutte captured a bronze at Stockholm in 1912; and she and Twigg, by winning the gold and silver, equaled in one race this country's total medal count for individual cyclists in all of the Games.

The two rivals, who have experienced close finishes in competition before, seemed to draw closer personally under the Olympic spotlight. Their supposed feud, said Carpenter, was nothing more than "fake hype. We have a very healthy competition." Twigg, a 21-year-old biology student at the University of Washington, was more explicit. "We started to feel more like a team this past week," she said. "We really didn't know each other all that well before. But we did know that if one of us didn't come home with the gold, we'd have to crawl out of here. I think this will be a big mental boost for the men."

Carpenter actually had a little more history in mind when she accepted her gold. Within the hour, her husband of less than a year, Davis Phinney (in the Games she called herself Carpenter-Phinney out of respect for him) would compete in the 190.2-kilometer (118.2-mile) men's road race, and the experts were giving him, a ferocious finishing sprinter, an excellent chance to win. If Davis could bring more gold home, the Phinneys would become the first American husband and wife in any sport to win gold medals in separate events and the first Olympic married couple to win the separate golds since the great Czech distance runner Emil Zatopek won the 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and the marathon, and his wife, Dana, the javelin in the 1952 Games.

Alas, Davis Phinney was to be denied his chance to be a part of history, although he was in the running almost until the end of this brutal race. Phinney was one of a group of seven riders—three Americans, two Norwegians, a Colombian and a Canadian—to break away from the pack on the ninth lap of the 12-lap race. U.S. coach Eddie Borysewicz, the man they call Eddie B., had contended that if his team could keep Phinney close to the leaders until the last 9.85-mile lap, Phinney's punishing sprint would bring him a gold in the final 200 meters. But Phinney tends to wither in hot weather, and Mission Viejo, part of Orange County's network of interlocking suburbs, was blistering this day. It became apparent late in the race that this would not be a great day for both Phinneys. As the gang of seven approached the final lap, though, an American rider did burst into the open—Alexi Grewal, a free spirit who is called "the John McEnroe of cycling" for his sometimes petulant behavior (he once deserted his team on a European tour).

Grewal, a spidery 6'2", 150-pounder, who is half Sikh Indian, had 23 seconds on the other six as he heard the bell for the last go-round. He was caught, however, by Canadian rider Steve Bauer on the Vista Del Lago hill, the highest and steepest on the course at 920 feet above sea level with a 12.6% grade. "I was really tired," said Grewal, and he looked it. The much more sturdily built Bauer seemed, by contrast, to be prepared to take command of the race. But Grewal did not panic and stayed with him somehow. The two repeatedly exchanged the lead, both seeming to struggle over the hill on La Paz Road, four miles from the finish. "I wasn't out of gas," said Grewal, but it was obvious he was happy to have the hill behind him.

The Norwegians Dag Otto Lauritzen and Morten Saether had broken away from Phinney and the others and were starting to press the leaders. Bauer, possibly looking for Phinney, was constantly glancing over his shoulder as he and Grewal approached the final stretch.

They sparred for a time, neither wishing to sprint prematurely, then with about 200 meters left, took off together. Grewal is better known as a climber than a sprinter, and he seemed more fatigued than the Canadian. But he is also a competitor. Riding in a slightly lower gear than Bauer, he burst past him in the final few meters and roared up the last incline to win by little more than a bicycle length. His time was 4:59:57, an average of 23.6 mph. He collapsed afterward in exhaustion and relief. "I can beat Alexi in a sprint," said Bauer, "but today I didn't. I didn't underestimate him." Bauer made history, too. He became the first Canadian cyclist to win an Olympic medal.

Lauritzen, a former Norwegian army paratrooper who took up cycling three years ago to rehabilitate an injured leg, outraced teammate Saether in the final 200 meters to win the bronze medal.

Grewal almost didn't compete in the Games. Two weeks earlier he was suspended for 30 days by the U.S. Cycling Federation, when it was discovered that he had ingested an illegal drug either in the medicine he takes for his asthma or in Chipower, a herbal potion recommended to him by his "rolfer," a therapist who administers deep muscle massage. But Grewal appealed the decision and was reinstated in time. "I feel vindicated," he said. "It's been a hard season and I've been under a lot of pressure. The coaches still think I'm a wild man, but I think they realize now that I do train hard. They understand that I'm an individual. Now I want to be thought of as an Olympic champion."

"Sometimes he's good, sometimes he's bad, and sometimes he's crazy," Eddie B. had said of his 23-year-old star. Now the coach, reveling in Grewal's triumph, could say, "I like Alexi. I have been unhappy with him. I have been tough with him, but he has reacted positively."

Some of the world's best cyclists, from the Soviet Union and East Germany, were not in these Games, and they have dominated Olympic cycling in recent years. In 1980 the Russians won three events and the East Germans two of the remaining three. But Carpenter said she didn't consider the Eastern bloc women, who do most of their racing on flat courses, to be any threat at all. And Grewal was in a world of his own, battling the heat, fatigue and a speedy and determined opponent. "I think Alexi would've beaten any cyclist in the world today," said Jim McFadden, editor of Cycling USA.

Carpenter had rooted her husband along from a broadcasting booth, crying out during one commercial break that he was running "the race of his life." Not quite. "I raced to win and it didn't work," said Phinney, who placed fifth. "When Grewal went, that was it."

The big winner, ultimately, was U.S. cycling, a sport that has made enormous progress in the past seven years under Eddie B. "I'm tough," says Borysewicz, a Polish immigrant who had served on his native country's national coaching staff before moving to the U.S. in 1976. "I am not polite. I'm doing it my way. I'm producing results, so I think I'm doing it the right way."

"It used to be," said U.S. team manager Michael Fraysse, "that we would hope to get enough riders to justify a food line. Now we've got Olympic champions."

Two of them, in fact, in one bountiful day.


Carpenter pedaled to the first gold medal in Olympic history for a woman cyclist.


After their tense duel over the final lap, Grewal was uplifted and Bauer downcast.


In victory, Grewal wilted in exhaustion and relief, but then blossomed.