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LESSON FROM A PRO
Alexander Wolff
May 21, 1990
An amateur led the Tour de Whozit until Raul Alcala played his trump
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May 21, 1990

Lesson From A Pro

An amateur led the Tour de Whozit until Raul Alcala played his trump

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One of the hoariest canons of cycling holds that when professionals and amateurs race together, the amateurs don't show up the pros. As Tour de France winner Greg LeMond says, "Pros don't take lightly amateurs winning races off them." Yet for most of the 11 days of the second Tour de Trump, which ended in Boston on Sunday, a 19-year-old from the Soviet Union—a kid who has never taken a ruble for pushing a pedal—led the field around by its handlebars.

His lead didn't stand up all the way; it disappeared over a single hill on the next-to-last day. The $50,000 winner's check went to Raul Alcala of Mexico, a pro who was quite happy to cash it. But the youngster, Vladislav Bobrik, had been so impressive that no one begrudged him his breach of etiquette.

Bobrik is a fair, ingenuous-looking youth, with a self-effacing manner that the man who lent the Tour de Trump its name could learn from. (Promise: From here on, there will be no mention of his name, let alone hers or even hers.) The rest of the Soviet's seven-man amateur team, which found itself in the race only because of a last-minute sponsorship deal with Du Pont, was just as green as Bobrik, its eldest rider having turned 21 a couple of days into the Tour. The team supported Bobrik magnificently. Said LeMond, "I don't think many pro teams could have controlled a race that way." LeMond himself was a nonfactor from start to finish, but more on that later.

The man who ultimately conquered Bobrik on that hill in upstate New York is an opposite ordered up from central casting. Alcala, 26, has competed four times in the Tour de France. He grew up in Monterrey as one of eight kids. Winning is his livelihood, and his sharp, dark features and fiery style suggest one of his heroes, retired French champion Bernard Hinault.

For seven days Bobrik wore the garish pink jersey emblematic of the overall lead. He had seized control during the third stage of the 13-stage race, an 87.7-mile stretch through largely flat Virginia countryside from Fredricksburg to Richmond. Given Bobrik's obscurity, none of the pros much cared when he slipped off on a breakaway that morning. The pack sat back, believing the youngster from the Crimea had a harmless eight-or nine-minute edge, a belief based on split times provided to the riders only intermittently by race officials.

In fact, Bobrik's lead was much larger. It would crest at 12 minutes that day, a huge advantage for any rider to take in a single stage. By the time the peloton, or pack, reacted, Bobrik had opened a cushion that would keep him in the pink for a week. The lead held up even as Bobrik took the best shots of some of the world's top pro teams: Alcala's PDM; Panasonic-Sportlife, with two newly minted pro riders, Viatcheslav Ekimov of the Soviet Union and East Germany's Olaf Ludwig; and France's Z/Kickers, which was led by Atle Kvalsvoll of Norway instead of by LeMond, who rode at three-quarter speed as he tried to get back into shape after several weeks of illness.

Of all the pros, Bobrik knew Alcala posed the biggest threat. Alcala had emphatically won both of the Tour's individual time trials—the stages the French call "races of truth," because they pit a rider alone on his bike against the clock. Moreover, Alcala sat in second place in the overall standings, 1:37 back, going into the final four days.

On the first of those four days, during an undulating stage from Stroudsburg, Pa., to New Paltz, N.Y., through wind-driven rain, PDM went on the attack. Three of Alcala's support riders—in the sport's colorful idiom they're called domestiques, because they do the stars' dirty work, towing them along in their slipstreams—were sent on a breakaway just before the first hill climb of the day. But the Soviets, shadowing Alcala, chased down this break as they had so many others. Alcala could take only 10 seconds out of Bobrik's lead going into New Paltz.

Few riders have the disposition to get comfortable in a leader's jersey. The attention of the press and the pressure of being out front, of being a marked man day after day, wears on a cyclist, particularly one as young as the 5'9", 139-pound Bobrik. In the clubby quarters of the peloton, Alcala woofed at Bobrik. "It must have been hard for Bobrik not to notice him," said one rider, "because Raul can be pretty intimidating out there." This was all part of the game, all part of trying to get the front-runner to crack. At a crucial juncture in the race, a leader's legs may go rubbery, his vigilance may lapse, or his heart may overrule his head.

However, with the youngster holding on to the lead day after day, the pros seemed to run out of tricks. After last Friday's circuit race through Central Park in Manhattan, only one day of hilly racing remained: a 123.7-mile stretch through the Catskill Mountains into Albany, N.Y., on Saturday. If PDM's plan was to keep the weight of the jersey on the young Russian as long as possible, it was cutting things awfully close. Said Bobrik afterward, "I think perhaps they underestimated our team from the very beginning."

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