One by one, some significant names from the cycling world were lined up on camera.
Jonathan Vaughters and Christian Vande Velde.
Tour de France champion (2006) Floyd Landis and David Zabriskie, plus Tyler Hamilton.
Then there was Neal Rogers, Derek Bouchard-Hall, Chris Horner and Betsy Andreu, the wife of cycling star Frankie Andreu, plus Paul Willerton.
All had ties to onetime cycling legend Lance Armstrong, while each participated multiple times at the Redlands Bicycle Classic.
Cycling was front and center on back-to-back Sunday night viewing when “Lance” ⎯ a two-week, four-hour documentary series on cycling’s superstar ⎯ was shown by ESPN on May 24 and May 31. All of the afore-mentioned were part of that show.
Armstrong’s rise and fall in a cycling world was showcased during his dominant years, 1999-2005. There was another question pending.
An Armstrong appearance at Redlands would have been somewhat spectacular. Would he race here? Would he even consider racing in an event that began in 1985?
It nearly happened, said Craig Kundig, a longtime Redlands Classic official.
“The year before he won his first Tour [de France],” said Kundig, referring to 1998, “I saw a blurb ⎯ it might’ve been in ‘VeloNews’ ⎯ that said he would be racing in Redlands.”
It was complete news ⎯ “shocking,” he said ⎯ to Kundig, who helped run an event that attracted virtually every top U.S. cyclist to local roads.
Armstrong, a world champion, had trouble latching onto a team after beating testicular cancer. Redlands, it turns out, might have been the perfect place to re-enter cycling. Armstrong signed with U.S. Postal Service.
Kundig was invited by Trek Cycling to a U.S. Postal pre-season training session in nearby Palm Springs in 1997. He was asked to join in on a ride, along with other non-team members.
“I’ll never forget that as long as I live,” said Kundig, whose out-of-shape form was tested by Armstrong, Vaughters, retired cycling great Davis Phinney and a group of Postals out for a training ride.
“That night at dinner,” said Kundig, “I asked Lance if he was going to race at Redlands.”
Yes, was one answer. “But their plans changed,” said Kundig.
Redlands, a six-day, six-stage event on the calendar for March 8-13, was in direct conflict with Paris-Nice, which also started on March 8.
According to Vaughters, Armstrong left that race and came back to the U.S., his U.S. Postal Service future in doubt.
Bouchard-Hall said, “If he had attended [Redlands] prior to winning the [Tour de France], the fallout would not have been that big.”
More attention to Redlands would have increased attention and crowds, especially since he was already a world champion and a cancer survivor, he said, “but the increase would have been measurable … not overwhelming.”
If Armstrong had shown up after winning his seven Tour de France jerseys, said Bouchard-Hall, “you could have seen 200,000 people in downtown Redlands. It would have been unlike anything the event had ever seen.”
Vaughters and Vande Velde, back-to-back Redlands champions in 1998 and 1999, were part of a U.S. Postal Service team ⎯ Armstrong’s squad. Each cyclist was vying for a position as Armstrong’s support riders in Europe.
During Armstrong’s Tour de France domination between 1999 and 2005, Redlands had spun itself with top-flight competitors, including Australian Cadel Evans, a runner-up to Vaughters in 1998, an eventual Tour de France champion.
“[The Redlands Bicycle Classic] were on the [United Cycling International] calendar,” noted Kundig, a financially costly move that should have brought plenty of top-flight professionals to Redlands.
UCI, he said, interfered with U.S. Cycling.
“They [UCI] really screwed up American cycling,” said Kundig “They blocked all those upper-level riders from coming here. They only let them race in the Tour of California.”
Horner: He was also spotted in “Lance.”
“He had fans all across Europe chasing him,” said Horner. “I don’t think he ever let any of them down. I’ve seen him sign a thousand autographs at one time.”
Such behavior would have continued at Redlands, he said.
It might be proper to disclose that Vaughters, Vande Velde, Landis, Zabriskie and Hamilton were all linked ⎯ alongside Armstrong ⎯ to drug involvement. In fact, each testified in their respective roles, incidents long since past.
Bouchard-Hall, who eventually would serve as president for U.S. Pro Cycling, was never implicated with Armstrong or drug use.
The others in ESPN’s “Lance,” like Willerton and Horner, are considered clean in the otherwise underground world of cycling performance enhancers that eventually ousted Armstrong with a lifetime ban.
Willerton, in fact, is a cyclist with links to both three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond and Armstrong.
Rogers, meanwhile, is a legendary cycling writer and editor who has shown up at Redlands to report.
Frankie Andreu, a one time cyclist and Armstrong teammate, has long since moved into cycling management and eventually its media. Along with Betsy, they wrote a book on the Armstrong saga.
Their presence only added to the glamour of Redlands’ event.
Kundig said, “Once Lance won that first Tour [de France], no way was he coming over to Redlands.”