Most American cycling fans credit three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond and the first U.S. rider in Tour de France, Jock Boyer, as the two who busted down the door for Lance Armstrong and the current field of U.S. riders in the European peloton.
But American boots made the first real dents in Old World cycling’s tradition-bound portico in the early 1970s.
With the support of bike manufacturer Raleigh, four members of New York City’s Century Road Club of America — John Howard, John Allis, Bill Humphreys and Stan Swaim — competed in the week-long Tour of Ireland in 1973. Howard won a stage and placed third overall and Allis placed fifth. It was the first time since the Major Taylor era that Americans were a significant presence on the European cycling scene.
Thirteen of the 14 riders on the CRCA team — known collectively as the “Raleigh Boys” — reunited at July’s 50th Anniversary Fitchburg Lonsjo Classic stage race in Massachusetts, a reunion organized by the seemingly tireless Humphreys. The riders, seven of whom are Olympians, participated in a couple of group rides, a welcoming reception at a recently opened Fitchburg cycling museum, and a banquet where the team was celebrated along with past Fitchburg Longsjo winners.
Cycling historian Peter Nye, keynote speaker at the banquet, pointed out that before the Raleigh Boys entered the scene, U.S. bike races averaged 23 to 24mph.
“They helped nudge up that average to 27 miles an hour,” Nye noted.
Nye said that difference alone had a noticeable impact on the quality of American racing. LeMond, for example, started racing as a junior at the higher speeds the Raleigh riders introduced to U.S. cycling, which in turn paved the way for his successful transition to Europe.
Thanks in part to the Raleigh Boys, Nye points out, “Greg was able to move.”
Raleigh team rider Bobby Phillips, known as “The Baltimore Bullet,” won Fitchburg Longsjo as junior in 1969 and as senior in 1971. He still lives in Baltimore and races in masters’ categories. Of the reunion, Phillips said “I was thrilled to come back. It’s just super.”
Sitting next to Phillips, a trim-looking John Howard said the experience of riding with the Raleigh Boys “is like being back in the ‘70s again. This is very retro.”
Along with racing in three Olympics and riding on 10 U.S. National teams, Howard went on to win the 1981 Ironman triathlon and he set the world bicycle speed record of 152.6mph, a mark he established drafting behind a racing car on the Bonneville Salt Flats.
The 62-year old Howard is still a regular on San Diego’s hardest weekly group rides, the Wednesday morning Camp Pendleton ride and the Saturday Swamis ride.
“It will become more nostalgic as time goes on,” Howard said of his time with his teammates from the 1970s. “But I truly enjoyed the experience of coming back and reliving some of those roads that we used to ride back here.”
Howard added that in his mind, racing today is different from when the Raleigh Boys dominated U.S. cycling in that “the standards of competition have improved. Anywhere you go (today) it’s 28, 29, 30 miles an hour. In my era, we were struggling to go 23 or 24.
“My personal challenge was to ramp up to that level. It still continues today with my Wednesday rides and Saturday rides; it’s very much a personal thing. I just want to be able to say I can do that — and there is a huge amount of ego involved.”
During the Raleigh Boys era, riders were considered to be washed up by age 30. Asked what has changed so that riders like Armstrong can race at the highest level into their late 30s, Howard, who runs a coaching business in San Diego, said “the body is capable of maintaining much more than we ever gave it credit for. Now we realize it’s not so much about age, it’s about how you perceive that. (Back then) you heard the old athletes talking about their age as if it were a handicap. I choose not to accept it as a handicap. I look at it as a challenge. That’s the only intelligent way to judge it.”
Emile “Flip” Waldteufel, 64, won Fitchburg in 1970. Originally from the west coast, Waldteufel was invited to race back east by Swain.
“We could race up in Canada — that sounded like a true adventure. So I did it.”
Waldteufel set up camp at a youth hostel in Littleton, Massachusetts. “I did some cooking there and helped out as a way of paying for my room and board.”
Waldteufel’s time in Massachusetts led to his connection with the CRCA club, which in turn stepped things up a notch in 1972 when Raleigh agreed to sponsor an elite team. “I was introduced to the CRCA, and after a short time racing there, I became part of the club. My profession was cooking — that’s what supported my cycling. Cooking provided access; I could work six months, make enough money, and go race for the whole season. When the season would start I would quit and race full time.”
Asked what came to mind as he was riding with his old teammates, Waldteufel, who made the cover of VeloNews in 1972 racing in Venezuela, said he was just happy to be with old friends.
“What fun it is to see them again,” he said. “We are all disciplined, dead serious about riding, but there is always a fair amount of humor with the group. Now the rides are still important, but the socializing has taken over. We spent time getting to know each other and catching up on news and talking a little about the past and more about the present.”
Waldeufel recently took a new chef position at Rendezvous, a French bistro in Levi Leipheimer’s home town of Santa Rosa.
“I haven’t met Levi,” said Waldteufel, after adding that his restaurant is on the course that the Tour of California took into Santa Rosa this year.
Doug Dale, 63, of Amherst, Massachusetts, said he “predate(d) all the Raleigh guys. I rode for the Century Road Club.”
The amiable, hearty and in-form Dale originally came to the East Coast from Chicago looking for racing. He raced in Central Park on Sundays.
“I lived in Connecticut, so I took the Sunday train that was coming back from delivering the New York Times,” he recalled. “I would get in the car that was usually carrying the newspapers. In those days, more people spoke foreign language in the races than English.”
He added that fellow Raleigh Boy, 1968 and 1972 Olympian, and current race promoter Dave Chauner and his dad helped bring on Raleigh as the team’s sponsor in 1972. That allowed the team to step up to a higher level of racing. Along with Boston’s John Allis, the club brought on John Howard and started to dominate the U.S. racing scene. “It became a national image.”
Dale noted that the team wasn’t just a physical powerhouse.
“It’s an amazing group of guys,” he noted. “You have this level of erudition — they were thinking in a broad way.”
Discussions would range from politics to racing strategies to chess.
“We’d go up to a bike race up in Canada and sit around and have a few beers after a stage and the talk was always amazing!”
Dale also said that the team brought important publicity to Raleigh in the U.S.
“One season we figured it out that Raleigh got about $72,000 in exposure in ink,” he said.
Later, Dale recalled that 7-Eleven team manager Jim Ochowicz looked to the Raleigh team as the model for the team that, starting in 1981, would put American cycling on the global map for good.
“Raleigh is key to the history of (U.S. cycling), it was the very bedrock, very American,” he noted with a touch of pride.
Asked if the Raleigh riders had any idea at the time that they were creating the template that would lead to global cycling forces teams like U.S. Postal and Discovery, Dale said he could never have predicted the growth that resulted.
“No. I think we were more intent on listening to Jimi Hendrix. It was a rolling carnival,” he said with a smile. “We’d get into a van on a Thursday night, drive all day Friday, race on Saturday and Sunday, get in the van, get back and go to work. It was crazy.”
After doing two parade laps around the Fitchburg Longsjo Criterium course then taking a 20 mile spin through the woods that surround the central Massachusetts town, Dale said one thing came to mind.
“Brotherhood. This is such a close fraternity,” he said. “And it’s so amazing. It’s almost like a military experience. We’ve gone through so many on-the-bike and off-the-bike experiences, and when we see each other there is a connection. And it’s a pretty disparate bunch. But the minute we get together. We go off for a little roll in the back country. Ahh, man. You remember, and you trust. That’s the bottom line.”