Where exactly does La Vuelta de Bisbee fit into cycling history? Well, in 1976, when the southern Arizona stage race was first run, Eddy Merckx had just won Milan-San Remo for a record seventh time, Greg LeMond finished second behind Clark Natwick in the junior race at the Tour of Nevada City, and mountain-bike racing debuted with the inaugural Repack Downhill in Marin County, California, won by Bob Burrowes.
And the first edition of Velo-news was still two years away.
John Timbers was the guiding light behind the first La Vuelta, a three-day, three-stage race on the last weekend in April. It seemed a good fit. The area’s mines had shut down the year before, and what remained of the Sixties counter-culture was coming to town, snatching up miners’ houses for a song. Bicycle racing was a sport well out of the mainstream, and the town and racers found a connection. Local families invited teams to stay in their homes, often for several years running.
Marc Thompson won that first race. Other, more familiar names would follow: LeMond in 1978; Bob Cook, ’77 and ’79; Kent Bostick, ’89. The domestic powerhouse Coors Light had an unbreakable stranglehold on the race for three straight years, with Michael Engleman, Alexi Grewal and David Mann topping the podium during 1991-93.
As the word about La Vuelta spread, riders from throughout the country made the spring trek to Bisbee, and the race began to expand under the stewardship of a series of race directors, among them Jean Redmond, Pat Siebold and Albert Hopper.
The infamous criterium with its leg-breaking climb up High School Hill and high-speed descent through Old Bisbee was added to the event in the late 1970s; later, a team time trial was included. The 1980s brought a women’s event and a fourth day of racing; the 1990s added a fifth day. La Vuelta eventually became a National Prestige Event, with as many as 200 men and 80 women racing on the southern Arizona roads.
For race director Hopper, the most memorable race was his first, in 1985. “A winter storm came in. It snowed at the top of the divide during the prologue. On Saturday there was a continuous cold drizzle during the 104-mile road race. Roy Knickman won the race, but at least one-third of the field quit. On Sunday, the sun finally came out for the criterium.”
During those years, marquee teams like Coors Light, Celestial Seasonings and Shaklee took top honors. Knickman, Jeff Pierce, and David Brinton were among the victors during the late 1980s and early ’90s. Women’s champions included Inga Benedict-Thompson, Lisa Brambani, Linda Brenneman, Marianne Berglund and Carolyn Donnelly.
But the race was gradually wearing out its welcome. As more and more racers came to town, and stayed for a longer period of time, fewer townspeople offered their hospitality. And keeping track of more than 250 riders over five days became a scoring nightmare. Generating results via computer was in its infancy, and script was often written on the fly during the event. The rigors of running La Vuelta were overwhelming its organizers and community, and the race went on hiatus during 1997-99.
In 2000, La Vuelta returned in a more manageable format. The revived race went back to its roots, offering four stages over three days, but this time with a separate masters event. Despite the downsizing, the occasional big gun still came to town. French legend Jeannie Longo won the women’s race twice, in 2000 and 2002; Scott Moninger added Bisbee to his extensive palmares in ’02; and Phil Zajicek won in ’06.
But now there were other races in other places. The Tour of the Gila, just north of Bisbee in Silver City, New Mexico, was eight years younger and proving a stronger draw for the big teams. And when the Tour de Georgia debuted in 2003, with a fat prize list and TV coverage, it was clear that big-time pro racing had passed Bisbee by.
Still, racers come to town each April, bearing high-tech equipment, specialized nutritional supplements and dreams of victory — though they mostly stay at the local bed-and-breakfast establishments instead of with local families. Many of them, like masters racer Lindsay Crawford, have been making the trek for years.
In 1988, category-4 racer Drew Miller drove to Bisbee to watch that edition’s final stage. Next year, he returned to race and was hooked. In 2003, he joined the ranks of La Vuelta champions.
“It’s a tough race with a great history in a unique town,” said Miller, who rides for Landis-Trek-VW. “LeMond raced there, Bob Cook, John Tomac, Grewal. . . . It is run well by Al Hopper and Co., and well supported by the community.”
This year’s La Vuelta consists of two road races and two time trials. The race begins today with the Mule Pass Time Trial, a 2.8-mile ascent through the heart of Old Bisbee with 837 feet of climbing. Malcolm Elliott set the men’s record of 9:18 in 1993; six years earlier, Leslie Schenk posted the women’s mark of 10:33.
Saturday is a double-stage day. First up is the Sulphur Springs Road Race, 79.3 miles and nearly 2400 feet of climbing for elite men and 45.8 miles and 1600 feet of up for women and masters. The afternoon brings the Warren Time Trial, a new course that serves up 8.3 miles of against-the-clock action for all categories.
Sunday’s finale is the Tombstone Road Race — 87.2 miles for men with 6427 feet of climbing, and 58.4 miles and 4356 feet of up for women and masters.
The winners of the 2008 La Vuelta de Bisbee will likely emerge from that final stage, adding their names to a long list — 30 years’ worth — of champions.
¡Qué viva La Vuelta!
For more, see the La Vuelta de Bisbee website.