The art of the wheel: Remembering Donald Trump’s unconventional foray into American cycling

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Donald Trump has worn many hats over his unconventional career — real-estate mogul, businessman, reality TV star, and now, presidential candidate. For a few years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he was also the title sponsor of the biggest stage race in the United States, the Tour de Trump. Steve Brunner worked on marketing for the event, and shares his memories.

In late 1988, Donald Trump veered from his massive real-state and business holdings into the realms of world-class cycling. “The Donald” did it in a way only he  could, by announcing a new event called the Tour de Trump. The multi-stage race would be held May 5-14, 1989, throughout the northeastern U.S. He announced the event as a “rival to the Tour de France.”

The first route started in Albany, New York, and meandered through Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia before finishing on The Boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in front of — where else? — the Trump Hotel and Casino.

A relatively unknown Norwegian, Dag-Otto Lauritzen of the professional U.S. team 7-Eleven, would win the race ahead of a field that included American Greg LeMond, who eventually won the Tour de France that year, as well as many of the top teams in the world at the time, including the PDM and Panasonic squads.

There were athletes from more than 25 countries, including Russia, which touted almost exclusively amateurs up to that point.  A young Russian, Viatcheslav Ekimov would surprise the professionals and take the neon pink leader’s jersey after Stage 1 into the tiny town of New Paultz in the Catskill Mountains.

Ekimov would go on to become a professional the following year, and eventually a Tour de France stage winner and Olympic gold medalist. He was symbolic of world change at the time; this was shortly after the Berlin Wall came down. Communism was falling and the Eastern Bloc sports powers were fractionalizing. It was huge world news at the time, so Ekimov’s exploits fell into Trump’s lap, which only accented his impeccable timing as a news-gatherer during that time.

Trump gained notoriety in unusual places around the globe with the Tour de Trump, which was televised in five continents and more than 100 countries in an era when ubiquitous satellite signals were not the norm. He reveled in the oddity of cycling, saying it was “off the beaten path from his boxing promotion” but it was a sports platform he saw had “massive potential, because of its global appeal.”

The race itself was an idea from then-CBS sports announcer John Tesh (of Entertainment Tonight fame) to then CBS Sports basketball analyst and announcer Billy Packer. Tesh had returned from covering the 1987 Tour de France and told Packer about the event. Packer knew about round objects, but they weren’t bike tires. But he did know a good idea and eventually made his way to New Jersey; while crossing the causeway into Atlantic City spotted Trump Hotel and Casino. He went to visit Trump marketing executive Mark Etess. He pitched him on the idea of a bike race up and down the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, encompassing the casino’s marketing territory. Etess liked the idea as a way to promote Trump’s fledgling airline business.

Packer was not a nuts-and-bolts guy, and had no knowledge of professional cycling. He needed someone who could drive the day-to-day operation and vision of the sports portion of the event. Packer called the United States Cycling Federation, the predecessor to USA Cycling, and eventually met USCF associate executive director Michael Plant, then a 29-year-old rising star in the sports marketing industry. Within weeks, the street-smart Plant was moving to New Jersey near Atlantic City to establish Medalist Sports, an event management company.

Plant hired Don Hobbs, a former executive from Michael Aisner’s group that ran the Coors Classic bike race in Colorado from 1975-88. Aisner, a pioneering visionary with Red Zinger Classic’s Mo Seigel, had produced the first mass-appeal cycling event in the U.S.  Plant also hired Jim Birrell, now one of two managing partners at the current iteration of Medalist Sports and an originator and operator of all of the top U.S. professional cycling races over the past 15 years. He also scooped up other talent, including Robert Sicard and David “Lumpy” Williams, a bear-of-a-man who made police chiefs feel comfortable closing main arteries in to their cities.

Plant’s first hire was a former track cyclist named Chris Gutowsky, who served as the operation’s director and who went on to a successful career of operating private tours to the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia. (I joined the staff in a marketing and communications manager only a few years removed from college, but had already worked at Olympic and Pan American Games.) A majority of the staff were in their 20s, an energy-laden necessity for the project.

The Medalist Sports crew averaged 80-hour work weeks with an eight-month crash course in promotion and event planning.  Arranging road closures in metropolitan areas like New York City, Inner Harbor of Baltimore, and Arlington, Virginia, were no walk in the park.

More than 200 police jurisdictions needed to be plotted and run through in the country’s most-populated corridor. To this day, the Tour de Trump remains the most massive undertaking of road closure in U.S. bike-racing history, dwarfing any current events by a landslide given the degree of difficulty in multi-state, multi-jurisdictions.

The stakes were high for Trump and all of those associated with the massive undertaking which secured 917 miles of highly-trafficked roads. The upside was the massive marketing opportunities that come along with that the region of the U.S., which included Trump’s hometown of New York City, which had never seen such a large-scale professional bike race. Major sponsors cued up, including Gatorade, Nike, BMW, Dominos Pizza, Hewlett-Packard, and Timex. To this day, no American cycling race has enjoyed such major corporate partners.

Plant worked back in the trenches with a special triumvirate of owners that included Trump Sports and Entertainment, broadcast partners NBC, and Jefferson-Pilot, the then Charlotte-based sports producer of college sports. Jefferson-Pilot became innovators in the production of the event, with an American flair, with product integrations and vignettes before the word was a sports marketing staple.

Packer was a wingman of sorts, conducting high-level updates with Trump and his key advisors. Plant and his team painted in the details in a highly-structured manner, building the perfect beast. It was a nice marriage.

The band’s front man, of course, was Trump. A charismatic, media-labeled bombastic entrepreneur. Trump, however, commanded instant attention, which became a public lightning rod for what was considered by many critics as “just a bike race.” His name and voice behind the event cut through the clutter, grabbing the often-jaded hometown New York media by the lapels. It was, in hindsight, perhaps the best way for a sport like cycling to be placed on the national sports marquee in the pre-Lance Armstrong days.

Venerable New York Times columnist George Vescey jabbed at the very essence of the event’s name, asking if it “was indeed possible to route a bike race up a man’s shoulders and down his nose.”

Sports Illustrated’s E.M. Swift mused in his post-race article: “If you could get past the name, the Tour de Trump, without losing your lunch, and if you could somehow divorce the sporting event from the excess baggage that went with it— the Trump Princess, the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, the chest-Trumping cameos of King Donald himself, whose ideas for improving the Tour de Trump included adding a few laps around the White House and continuing the race to Los Angeles via Detroit, Chicago and San Francisco — what you had was a pretty nice bicycle race.”

American Davis Phinney, a crowd favorite, won his second consecutive stage in Arlington, Virginia, ahead of Michel Zanoli, Greg LeMond, Eric Vanderaerden, and Dag-Otto Lauritzen. Photo by John Pierce, PhotoSport International.
American Davis Phinney, a crowd favorite, won his second consecutive stage in Arlington, Virginia, ahead of Michel Zanoli, Greg LeMond, Eric Vanderaerden, and Dag-Otto Lauritzen. Photo by John Pierce, PhotoSport International.

For those of us in the trenches, including the hard-driving and innovative Plant, having Trump’s name and gaudy embellishments was not a curse but a blessing. It meant more prime-time attention. At the final stage’s award ceremony of the inaugural 10-day Tour de Trump, on May 14, 1989, Trump gazed out onto the throng of people lining the aging Boardwalk in Atlantic City, his shining namesake casino as a backdrop,  he calmly announced that it was great having “a million people on hand” to witness the finish of his namesake race.

The next day, USA Today, New York and Philadelphia newspapers skewered Trump and his mention of “one million spectators.” It was easy to see the genius and P.T. Barnum in Trump’s approach. He knew the words “one million” would be placed into headlines or leads and people would remember the number. The net result would register to those not in attendance that it was big and important event.

For all the criticism of the event name, and the hyperbolic comments, Trump had instantly lifted a relatively obscure sport into a mass attraction. The command of drawing attention (good or bad), so prevalent on today’s presidential campaign trail, was on display in full force. A juggernaut hatched out of words led to belief that something big had occurred. You had to pay attention.

Some might call it arrogance, but Trump’s confidence permeated to his troops. From that standpoint, everyone working hard behind the scenes felt a powerful lift because of it. A weird special power that any hill could be climbed, you just had to say it, which meant you had to try to back it up. It was both American and un-American at the same time. Or, maybe, it was a New York trait, born out of the fact that you have to swim competitively in the largest human reef without being eaten.

For their part, Trump’s PR machine, NBC and Jefferson-Pilot, and Plant’s crew made sure the organization of the event behind Trump’s words were world class. The most important audience, the athletes, walked away from the first Tour de Trump awe-inspired.

Dutch rider Gert-Jan Theunisse, one of the world’s top riders at the time, said the race would eventually “rival the Tour de France.”

LeMond, the three-time Tour de France champion, said during the race: “The Tour de France will always be the Tour de France, but, it’s easy to see how the Tour de Trump could slot in as the world’s second-biggest race very soon.”

Internationally, large publications like France’s L’Equipe and The Netherlands’ De Telegraaf were singing the event’s praises. In their summaries, they quickly tied the American themes of the race, which included routes through historic Civil War battlefields and iconic U.S. cities, to Donald Trump, calling him “originally American.”

The bombast was lost on them. They didn’t care. Instead, the core of 30-plus international journalists admired the flare and display only Trump and his pink event colors could project. It was an admiration that an individual could so confidently announce he could take on an institution as great as the Tour de France and not bat an eye.

The irony, of course, is that the event flamed out as quickly as it started, leaving a mysterious vapor trail. One of the great blows to the Trump Empire of the time was the tragic deaths of two of Trump’s two key executives, including the marketing guru Etess and CFO Stephen Hyde, in a helicopter crash in October 1989.

Both men were catalysts behind the success and weight of Trump into not only his core business, but also with the Tour de Trump.  Trump’s business focus began to change, and the economy was slowing. After two short years, the highly successful event lost its benefactor and frontman.

Through Mike Plant’s diligence, the event lived on under the banner of Tour DuPont, and even grew to a 12-day event during its six-year run from 1991 to 1996. It was, by most expert’s estimates, the biggest professional cycling event on U.S. soil, and remains so to this day.

In its final year, the Tour DuPont was generating a profit and continued to field large crowds of spectators, high television ratings, and a roadshow that many other sports properties envied. The last race champion, in 1996, was Lance Armstrong, who despite other shortcomings in his future, rode valiantly and powerfully against some of the best fields of cyclists North America has ever assembled. He was a rising star in the post-LeMond era, and a boost for the sport in America. And, make no mistake, he was an incredible athlete, a former world champion even then, with pit-bull defiance that made him a winner. Fans thunderously responded and hailed Armstrong the new King. That same year, he contracted cancer.

The eight-year run was stunning — the athletic handoff, from LeMond to Armstrong; the business handoff from Trump to DuPont. In hindsight, there were many strange bedfellows, yet powerful figures in American business and sport. If history teaches us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected, especially when motivation factors into a person’s psyche.

More than two decades removed, Plant feels that American cycling still owes a lot to Donald Trump. “It wasn’t an easy business proposition then,” Plant said. “He brought a lot of attention to the sport in his own way. An American way, really. For a conservative, tradition-laced European sport, that was shocking. But all of us who worked so hard those first couple years, we felt we were changing the paradigm. And, I think we did.”

About the author

Steve Brunner is President and Founder of KOM Sports Marketing in Colorado Springs, and has worked on most major North American stage races, including the Amgen Tour of California, Tour de Georgia, USA Pro Challenge, and Tour of Alberta. Prior to that he worked as Director of Sports Marketing and Properties at the United States Olympic Committee. Most recently, KOM Sports was the marketing agency for the 2015 UCI World Road Championships in Richmond, Virginia.

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