Boulder a Rocky Mountain hub for world-class cyclists. Altitude, knowledgeable fans among attractions for top riders

The bike racing capital of the world might just be Boulder, Colo. While Europe has the biggest races, Americans are attacking the predominantly European sport on its own soil, and the attack is being launched from this rapidly growing city of 80,000 nestled against the Rocky Mountains 30 miles from Denver.

``A lot of the world-class riders live here. As much as any other place in the world,'' said Boulder resident and 1984 Olympic road race gold medalist Alexi Grewal.

Many Americans have heard of Greg LeMond. In a coup almost the equal of a Frenchman winning baseball's Most Valuable Player award, LeMond won the 1986 Tour de France.

Now, going a step further, imagine a French team winning the Super Bowl, the World Series, or the National Basketball Association championship.

A cycling team just might do the equivalent at this year's Tour de France, and that team, 7-Eleven, is made up largely of Boulder riders.

Most Americans probably haven't thought of cycling as a team sport. It is. Each team of nine cyclists in the Tour de France tries to get its top rider to win the race, and of course each rider tries to place as highly as possible.

There's an incredible amount of strategy, most of it based on the fact that the leader, breaking the wind, is expending much more energy than those drafting him (positioning themselves slightly behind the rider in front in order to benefit from a moving pocket of air).

In Boulder, up to 30,000 fans understand this, and year after year they have crowded North Boulder Park for the final stage of the Coors Classic bike race.

The annual August race, which began as the Red Zinger Classic in 1975 and assumed its current sponsorship in 1980, has grown over the years into American cycling's mega-event. Several years ago it was expanded geographically and this year will begin on Aug. 8 in San Francisco, tour across northern California, then hop over to Colorado from Aug. 16 until the finish on the 21st. The finish used to be in the park, but with so many fans trampling the grounds and neighboring yards, it was moved a couple of miles to the University of Colorado campus.

Meanwhile, as more and more top riders from around the country came for the race and saw what a great place Boulder was, many decided to live here.

``Connie Carpenter was one of the first to live here,'' race promoter Michael Aisner said. ``She loved the comfort of the town. Being recognized in restaurants was really fun for her. There's a payback for bike racers who live in Boulder.''

When Carpenter won the 1984 Olympic women's road race gold medal, thousands staged a spontaneous victory parade for her and Grewal on the downtown (no cars allowed) mall.

Carpenter married Davis Phinney, a lifelong Boulder resident who has won stages in each of the last two Tour de France races with the 7-Eleven team. A stage is one day's racing (often six hours or more) in the grueling 25-stage Tour.

The future looks very bright for American cycling in general, and Boulder cyclists in particular.

LeMond, who won the Tour de France in 1986 after finishing second in 1985, was injured in a hunting accident last year but has recovered to the point where he might be able to win the Tour again. He'll be a member of the Dutch team in this July's race.

While LeMond is one American cyclist who has never called Boulder home, the 7-Eleven team has the last two winners of the white jersey, given to the best Tour de France rider under 24. Andy Hampsten, a Boulder resident since 1981, won it by finishing fourth in 1986. Raul Alcala, who trains in Boulder when not in his native Mexico, won the white jersey last year by finishing an impressive ninth in only his second Tour de France.

Meanwhile, the 7-11 team finished third in overall points in only its second year on the Tour.

Things look bright on the amateur scene, too, with Boulder's Crest team looking to place Todd Gogulski, Dave Farmer, Andy Paulin, and others on the US Olympic squad.

Training is what enables cyclists to compete at these levels, and Boulder has more licensed riders to train with than any entire state except California. They have their choice of rolling farmland to the east, or the Rocky Mountains, which soar upward at the western edge of town.

Marathon runner Frank Shorter moved to Boulder after winning the gold medal in the 1972 Olympics, and he's been followed by a veritable Who's Who of distance runners and triathletes, who, like cyclists, feel training at Boulder's 5,420-foot elevation helps them cope with a lack of oxygen during races.

Boulder does get snow, but then racers train either on knobby-tired (some tires are even studded) mountain bikes, or on cross-country skis, using the rigorous new skating technique for miles at a time to stay in excellent shape.

Fitness is clearly a prerequisite for world-class cyclists. And so in this time of national fascination with fitness, Americans can enthusiastically support these great athletes in their quest for international honors.

Just as Boulder residents have been doing for years!

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