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Riding Under the Radar: A conversation with Steve Bauer

Steve Bauer is one of those guys whose name conjures up visions of glory.

Steve Bauer is one of those guys whose name conjures up visions of glory among cycling fans and blank stares from others. A Canadian sporting icon who rode under the radar. That’s Bauer. And ride he did.

Considering his achievements on a road bike include the 1984 Olympic silver medal, 1984 UCI World Championship bronze and an incredible fourth overall finish in the 1988 Tour de France he was more than just slightly ahead of his time. A rider with those credentials in today’s ‘information age’ would be a household name with a solid financial portfolio to boot. Not that he’s spilling tears in his coffee.

Taking a cue from some European professional cyclists, the native of Fenwick, Ontario set up Steve Bauer Bike Tours after retiring from competition in 1996, following the Atlanta Olympics. It’s a successful business he currently operates with his partner, Josee Laroque. They’ll take a group to the Tour and to the Giro d’Italia this summer but his primary focus, these days, is on building Team Spidertech Powered by Planet Energy, a UCI Continental team consisting of 13 of Canada’s best young cyclists plus two foreigners. Officially, he’s the manager and director sportif, devising race tactics and communicating with his riders, but he also liaises with sponsors, schedules races, manages travel itineraries, even coaches some of the lads, too. For all the efforts, there are few complaints, though. After all, there’s no one in this country with as much experience in the upper echelons of professional cycling.

Bauer agrees to chat at a Starbucks near his home in Southern Ontario. “I’d have you out at the house,” he says, “but we’re going through some renovations and it’s a little noisy,” With that he glances over at a couple of young women engaged in an animated conversation at the adjacent table and smiles. “It’s not much quieter here.” The women fail to recognise the fit 50-year-old Bauer with his shaved head and his Shimano-emblazoned jacket. They likely don’t fall into the category of longtime cycling fans. They do pause, ever so briefly, when Bauer tells me he rates his Tour de France finish  higher than the Olympic medal. Mention the Olympics and people can relate.

“The Olympics was a phenomenal race,” Bauer says. “It was a little of the ‘agony of defeat’ losing it in a sprint, but winning an Olympic silver medal is a fantastic career accomplishment. The world championship bronze was big because it was my first big monster championships as a professional. That was a race I realise I could have won with a little more experience.

“But, I suppose being fourth in the Tour de France is an amazing physical achievement. That challenge, for three weeks, mentally, physically, it’s probably the best sports performance of my career.” Relaxing, he sits back in his seat leaning slightly against the wall then sips from a large cappuccino. It’s been a while, one deduces, since he’s discussed his own career at length. It brings back joyful memories of races won, victories shared and of teammates like Tour winners Bernard Hinault, Greg Lemond and Lance Armstrong.

As a young amateur, he sought advice from Canadian stars such as Gord Singleton and Jocelyn Lovell. But once he turned pro, the influence of the Tour winners was invaluable. Training with Lemond in California, for example, opened Bauer’s mind to the limits to which a cyclist could push himself.

“Greg taught me to train like a pro, basically. To do a hell of a lot more on the bike,” Bauer says. “I still think to this day there are a lot of teams that don’t understand the workload necessary to be a pro cyclist. “Hinault taught me how to read a time trial. He and I rode in a car together during stage previews. I learned different ways to ride and a little bit about attitude. He had a tough attitude, but he was a nice guy.”

Although he would normally do the spade work for team leaders in the Tours, Bauer had his share of individual successes like his podium finishes at the Dauphine Libere, the traditional warmup for the Tour de France, the Zurich-Metzgete World Cup event and the Paris-Roubaix race. And, as his career began to wind down, he became a mentor to a young Armstrong. The pair were teammates on the Motorola team.

“There was a certain level of maturity and outlook that we provided Lance,” Bauer says. “He was so full of fire and energy, but you sort of had to rein him in a bit, try to keep him disciplined and patient. He had all the rest: the energy, the horsepower and the desire to win. The most important thing is we got along great. We were good buddies first.”

Sometimes Bauer would fly down to Armstrong’s hometown of  Austin, Texas, where they would take long rides during the day then go for a swim in a lake bordering Armstrong’s ranch. At night they’d eat Mexican food and drink margaritas at a favourite hangout or visit the city’s famous live music clubs. “It was a lot of fun. It was all music in Austin. But for the most part you are training, doing the regular cycling stuff,” Bauer says.

Armstrong appeared by video at the Team Spidertech launch in January wishing his friend good luck with the new team. Clearly, life was good ‘back in the day’ when Bauer rode for pro teams such as La Vie Claire, 7/Eleven and Motorola. Victories on the road, celebrations and camaraderie and to a professional cyclist it was a little taste of heaven. But there was also a massive tragedy.

During the 1995 Tour de France, his and Armstrong’s Motorola teammate, Fabio Casartelli, crashed on the descent at the Col de Portet d’Aspet. The Italian, who was the 1992 Olympic road champion, died en route to the hospital. He was just 24 years old. Bauer stares at the floor for a few seconds before recalling that horrific day.

“I remember that descent and how technical and dangerous it was. It had very quick, unpredictable turns,” he says quietly. “We were really racing fast, we were single file. I didn’t really know what happened. I heard there was a crash but I didn’t realise Fabio was part of it. Somewhere along the course, going through the Pyrenees, we found out he had passed.”

Crashes and cycling go together and Bauer had his share. At Wijmegemen in ’95 he ran into a parked car at top speed, giving himself some contusions and road rash, but he never broke any bones. The death of a teammate though, was something nobody could fathom.

“How do you continue? The emotions eat you up,” he says. “We got together as a team and tried to decide what the next steps would be. We were crying. You start to think about his family, he had a little kid that was just born. It was pretty tough.”

The next day, the peleton rode slowly in tribute to Casartelli with the Motorola team crossing the finish six abreast some 50 metres in front. Team management set up a fund for Casartelli’s widow and son beginning with a portion of the team’s Tour winnings.  A plaque was erected at the crash site.

The accident underscored the importance of safety and with his wealth of experience Bauer is not afraid to voice his opinions on modern racing. The recent controversy over the use of radios during the Tour de France is a particular sore point. Bauer has ridden with and without radios, the Motorola team being the first to use them. Bauer says that if a director can stay out of the peleton while communicating with his riders by radio, it reduces the congestion that could lead to a crash. There’s another side to the debate too.

“You could argue (radio use) has sterilised race tactics a bit because the information is in real time,” he says. “I think there are better ways (to manage). The televisions should be taken out of the directors’ cars. They watch the race live and can see the breakaways and see how tired the guys are. In a way, they are seeing things they shouldn’t see.”

Bauer drains the bottom of his cappuccino and sits back again folding his arms. There’s not the slightest doubt this is a man who loves the sport of cycling. He is particularly concerned about cycling’s image. Over the next few minutes he volunteers an extraordinary measure of contempt for those who cheat their way to the top.

In his day, there was no World Anti Doping Agency and no anti-doping code, which is applied across the sports world. The current anti-doping programs are a good thing, he believes, and should lead to a level playing field for Canadian cyclists. Looking back to his own career, filled with so many near victories, he wonders if things might have been different had there been such stringent drug testing then.

“I would have loved to have the anti doping we have in place now when I was racing,” Bauer declares. “I guess I can say it: I think some of my performances may have turned out to be better because I was the guy who was doing it clean. I raced to fourth in the Tour drinking water.

“I am not saying the guys in front of me were taking stuff, but I think we understand, from the history of the sport, that I would have a better shot now, doing what I did. There’s an opportunity now for our Canadian athletes, who are clean, to go forward having more confidence and not having to say ‘that guy’s taking something.’ They don’t have to be frustrated all the time because there is a doping problem.”

Venting his own frustration, Bauer makes it clear he has a distaste for the way cycling is portrayed in the media with positive doping cases gobbling up space in magazines and newspapers while good news stories are scarce.

“Cycling is a huge leader in anti doping in sport. I really wish that a lot of other sports would use this example. Unfortunately they don’t,” he says. “Maybe it will take a few scandals in their own house to realise they have to smarten up. What I mean by that is, look at our national sport. Nobody wants to know. Nobody wants to know. I always get calls when there’s a cycling positive and I tell them cycling is the cleanest professional sport.”

The main focus for this year’s Team Spidertech Powered by Planet Energy will be the Tour of California and then a pair of UCI pro tour races in Montreal and Quebec City September 10-12. Bauer is still unsure whether his riders can enter as the Spidertech team or as members of the national team. The race director Serge Arsenault is in discussions with UCI President Pat McQuaid to allow the team to race in the Continental Pro category. Both pitch it as a wonderful opportunity to grow the sport in this country.

The eager director sportif has lofty goals for the team. The next step up is to race as a UCI Continental Pro team. Along with more serious competitive opportunities there will be an increased budgetary requirement. “If we want to step into the pro world then realistically we need about $3 million a year,” Bauer admits. “You have fairly substantial requirements from the UCI: a minimum bank guarantee of $300,000, a minimum salary for 16 riders, minimum salary for staff. I would guess a team like BMC who have been a Continental Pro team for a couple of years would have a budget of $3 – $5 million. A pro tour team? You’re talking about $10 million.”

This year, along with title sponsor Spidertech, the team counts Planet Energy, whose CEO, Paul DeVries, has been a major catalyst in the project, Saputo, Blackberry, Shimano, Argon 18 bikes and Pearl Izumi among their sponsors. Most were present at the lavish team launch where the riders were introduced by master of ceremonies Curt Harnett, himself an Olympic track medalist.

Bauer says there is no designated team leader at this point. “I wouldn’t say we have ‘a‘ guy. Mostly this year we will be shooting for winning bike races and not focused on winning a stage race. I think that’s what we can do best.”

After a couple of hours in his company, two things are apparent. Steve Bauer is a cyclist for life. It has been that way since his mother first encouraged him to join the local cycling club all those years ago. It shows in his eagerness to lend his time to various charitable rides such as the Ride to Conquer Cancer. He was also the course designer of the 2003 UCI Road Cycling world championship course in Hamilton.

Secondly, he possesses a boundless supply of confidence. The time was right to become a director sportif, he admits, despite the fact he had turned down previous requests. The year he retired he was asked to take on the director’s position with the US Postal team. His children were still young, so he declined. Two years later, it was Lance Armstrong himself who called asking again.

“Lance asked and I said ‘no’,” Bauer says smiling.  “So then he asked Johan Bruyneel and the rest is history. I don’t regret it. I didn’t want to go back to Europe. My kids were younger and I had Steve Bauer Bike Tours.

“Most recently I was asked if I was interested in directing Team Sky. What am I going to do? Go to Sky and earn the big salary potentially? Throw out everything you have built here? Let down all our partners and riders?  So it feels right to do what we want to do and not work for somebody else.”

And that’s when the penny drops and the motivation he’s buried behind his commitment to the team is revealed like some shameful secret, only it’s not. It’s commendable. It’s patriotic. Steve Bauer dreams of taking a Canadian pro team to the Tour de France.

“Yes, it will be us,” he says, the words rushing out of his mouth. “I think it’s totally realistic. If we can find the dollars, we can do it. We have the athletic talent. I am not saying we are going to put nine Canadians in the tour the first year. I can’t imagine that. If we do it within four years I bet half the guys could be Canadian. Ryder (Hesjedal), Michael (Barry) might not be around, but then there’s Christian Meier. You could have four or five of the core group Canadian, Why not? I did it.”

Standing up he slips on his jacket then shakes hands. He politely declines a photo request because he’s not wearing the team sponsors’ logos. “Got to go, there’s work to be done,” he says with a wave then steps out to the wintry air, under the radar once again.


Steve Bauer

Birthday: June 12, 1959
Hometown: St. Catharines, Ontario

1975: Joined St. Catharines Cycling Club

1977: 7th in World Championships Junior pursuit

1978 : 1st Canadian Championship Criterium

1981, 82, 83:  Canadian road race champion

1982: Commonwealth Games silver medal road race

1984: Olympic silver medal road race Los Angeles

1984: Bronze medal World Championships Barcelona

1985: 10th overall in Tour de France

1986: 2nd Championship of Zurich

1986: 4th Tour of Flanders

1986: 2nd overall Tour of Ireland

1987: 10th overall in Giro d’Italia

1987: 4th Tour of Flanders

1988: 4th overall in Tour de France

1988: 8th Paris Roubaix

1989: 4th Paris Roubaix

1989: 1st Championship of Zurich

1989: 10th Tour of Flanders

1990: Led Tour de France for nine consecutive days, finishing 23rd overall

1990: 2nd Paris Roubaix

1991: 4th Paris Roubaix

1996: Canadian Olympic trials winner road race

1996: 41st Olympic Games Atlanta

1996: Announces retirement from the sport

2008: Becomes Director Sportif for Team R.A.C.E., which becomes Planet Energy in 2009 and Spidertech Powered by Planet Energy for 2010