For a long time, the World Championships for pros was a purely European affair. Large blocks from Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Italy and Spain dominated the field of participants, supplemented by smaller selections from other Western European countries. Participants from overseas were often fortune hunters who had ended up in Europe. Giovanni Jiménez, for example, the first Colombian to appear at the start of a World Championship cycling, had come to Hamburg by boat from Medellín to start a cycling career in Europe. Jiménez had a hard time during the harsh winters and even had to work as a factory worker for his livelihood, but he eventually managed to build a meritorious professional career in Belgium. He proudly defended his homeland at the world championships, without any support from the Colombian federation.
Even participants from the United States were exotic loners in those years. It was only in the second half of the 1970s that a selection for the rainbow race was made on a more structural basis. The male American cyclists were thus way behind their female colleagues, for whom Audrey McElmury had already become world champion in 1969.
In the eighties the American selection grew further. Where initially only three riders were delegated, this number rose to four in 1981 and even six in 1982, so that the largest American selection up to that time was at the start of the world championships at Goodwood. However, the reality was not nearly as positive as this trend suggests. The American Cycling Federation had initially selected nine riders, of which only six eventually appeared at the start. Riders had to pay for all costs themselves because the American federation did not have a budget for this. Consequently, only riders who stayed in Europe could make the trip to England.
The front men of the selection were Jonathan Boyer and Greg LeMond, who both rode for French teams. Boyer had been the standard-bearer of American cycling for several years. He was one of the first Americans to race in Europe and in 1981 was the first American ever to start the Tour de France. Boyer was a decent rider, but was on the whole rather invisible. In the absence of any breakthroughs, he had to ride in service. Two weeks before the World Championships in Goodwood, however, he had shown that he had good legs by finishing second in the Druivenkoers in Overijse.
On the other hand you had Greg LeMond. Eventhough he was only 21 years old, it was quite clear that he was a formidable cyclist. When he left the amateur circuit in 1981, he had already shown his worth, a potential that he only confirmed in his second year as a pro. However, things went wrong in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He broke his collarbone during a crash before the official start of the race. After the necessary rest, LeMond hoped to make his debut in the Tour de France, but Renault team leader Cyrille Guimard thought he was too young for that. Both Boyer and LeMond saw in the world championship in Goodwood a chance to give their season a boost.
The two American aces did not get along, although they had been teammates at Renault the year before. Sport-wise, the six years younger LeMond had immediately surpassed Boyer. His first participation in the Dauphiné Libéré immediately earned LeMond third place, while Boyer had to settle for a role in the shadows. In the winter, a dissatisfied Boyer had left the team. But also on a human level both Americans were opposites. Boyer was a devout believer and a convinced vegetarian, while the more exuberant LeMond regularly treated himself to an ice cream or a hamburger during the long months away from home.
All this caused strong divisions within the American selection as well. Boyer could count on the support of John Eustice and David Mayer-Oakes, who rode for the French Sem team, just like Boyer. LeMond on the other hand could count on the support of George Mount, who rode for the Italian team, and of the maverick in the selection, Eric Heiden. Heiden had won five Olympic gold medals in speed skating in Lake Placid and was also trying to make it in cycling. Around the time of the World Championships in Goodwood, Heiden already spent a few months in Belgium, where he rode criteriums to learn the trade. He stayed in Izegem with the Noël Dejonckheere, who had also taken care of Greg LeMond at the beginning of his career. So the Americans had a team with a lot of quality, but were not prepared to ride as one. And that would become painfully obvious during the race...
The course in England was heavily criticised by the riders and the international press beforehand. The predominantly flat course was labelled as insufficiently difficult. It was clear from the start that Kennel Hill would be the deciding factor in the race. This three kilometre long slope took the peloton from the car circuit to the finish at the higher horse racing track.
As expected, Goodwood did indeed offer a rather uneventful course of the race. The laps were reeled in at a furious pace and the peloton was held together by the teams that had a leader with a strong final shot. Only a few riders managed to get ahead of the peloton for a while, but none of them posed any danger. In addition, expected stars such as Bernard Hinault or Gerrie Knetemann gave up prematurely. Even outgoing champion Freddy Maertens, in line with his poor season, slammed on the brakes without playing any significant role.
In the final, the last climb of Kennel Hill proved decisive. A reduced peloton started the climb. Hennie Kuiper accelerated at the foot of the climb, but the Dutch former world champion was soon overtaken by the Spaniard Marino Lejarreta. At 500 metres from the finish he was in turn overtaken by a new attacker in blue jersey, red stripes and white stars... It was Jonathan Boyer who had ridden away!
No one reacted immediately and Boyer created a nice gap. Until Greg LeMond rode to the head of the peloton. Not to attack, but to set the pace at the head of the group. Slowly but surely, he closed the gap on his teammate Boyer. In his wheel Giuseppe Saronni and Sean Kelly waited patiently for the right moment. LeMond rode up to Boyer's rear wheel and paved the way for Saronni, who drove off everyone with a devastating acceleration. The new world champion also wore a blue jersey, but was by no means an American.
Afterwards, there was consternation in the American camp. LeMond had finished second and had thus delivered the United States a historic silver medal, but Boyer thought that the world title had been stolen from him. In defence of LeMond's tactics, all sorts of arguments were put forward: Boyer would never have sustained his attack anyway and LeMond himself had tried to win with a long sprint. According to teammate George Mount, LeMond could not have done much differently, except throw his bike on the ground and hope everyone would fall over it. According to the unwritten laws of cycling, however, it was not LeMond's place to do the leading when Boyer was ahead.
LeMond himself stated in all honesty: "We were in the last 500 metres and Boyer only had a twenty-metre lead, which he certainly could not have maintained. He wouldn't have won and I didn't want him to win. He is not a friend of mine. He's never won a professional race and I didn't think he's the kind of rider who should be world champion." Boyer was thus the victim of the divisions within his own team and of the boundless winner's mentality of young Greg LeMond. What should have been a high day for American cycling now left a very sour taste in everyone's mouth.
Barely one year later, however, everyone had already forgotten about the Goodwood drama. In the Swiss Altenrhein Greg LeMond cycled on a difficult course the entire opposition in vain. He, and not Jonathan Boyer, thus became the very first American world champion. This marked the definitive beginning of the rise of American cycling.
In the next decade, Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong would bring the United States two more world titles. But there were also successes outside the World Championships: Alexi Grewal won the gold medal in the road race at the 1984 Olympics, Ron Kiefel was the first American to win a stage in a major stage race at the 1985 Giro and in 1988 Andy Hampsten even won the final classification of the Giro.
Also on an organisational level, American cycling flourished as never before. In 1986 the organisation of the world championships was brought to the States. On a tough course in Colorado Springs Moreno Argentin won the world title; LeMond finished sixth. Meanwhile, an all-American team also took part in the biggest races in the world. Main sponsor 7-Eleven had entered cycling as a private sponsor of Eric Heiden, but from 1985 a full-fledged professional team was put together and crossed the ocean.
Despite the boom, there was no longer a role for Jonathan Boyer in American cycling. Many years later he would declare that the incident at Goodwood had had a very big impact on his relationship with LeMond and on his career. Boyer got a place with 7-Eleven for a few more years, but he didn't manage to get any more results and stopped racing in 1987. For Greg LeMond, however, the silver medal at Goodwood was just the stepping stone to more. In 1986 the American flag was hoisted for the first time on the Champs-Élysées in his honour as the overall winner of the Tour de France. LeMond managed to repeat this exploit twice more, despite a serious hunting accident which threatened his career and even his life. With two world titles and three final victories in the Tour, LeMond has earned an important place in cycling history, not only as the first American medallist at the World Cup, but without doubt as one of the best cyclists of all time.
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