Of the many riders whose careers have been cast into pre-internet oblivion, Canadian Steve Bauer’s is one that definitely merits exhumation.
He won Classics in Zurich and Montreal, took Tour stages, wore the yellow jersey in the Tour de France in both 1988 and 1990, made Olympic and Professional Worlds road race podiums a month apart and, in 1990, finished second in the closest-ever finish to Paris-Roubaix.
He’d knock out top-tens in the Tour of Flanders and Het Nieuwsblad (nee Volk) as a matter of course. A fourth place overall in the 1988 Tour de France is now overlooked, but for an Anglophone rider of the era, it put him among the hitters, a rider who could ride cobbled Classics as well as tilt for the general classification in stage races between 1985 and 1990.
“I hadn’t raced much in Belgium at all,” reflects Bauer, now working with Astana - Premier Tech. “As an amateur I had been in Italy and France, but I had hooked up with Greg LeMond through a mutual sponsor, the late Fred Mengoni, and we trained a lot together. Even after the 1984 Los Angeles games I went straight to Belgium, signed with La Vie Claire and started to prepare for the Barcelona worlds with Greg and Phil Anderson.” Almost by default, Belgium became Bauer’s European base.
“It was pretty obvious that I was more of a one-day rider than a GC guy,” says Bauer. “I had a clear vision that those races would suit me best and every year my targets were Roubaix, the Worlds and Flanders. I know that these days a lot of riders look for better weather to base themselves in, but sometimes, if you want to be good in the northern Classics, you just have to suck it up,” he laughs.
“You do need to ‘learn’ these races a bit, for sure, but a lot of factors help. I came from the track, my bike handling was good, I had a low centre of gravity and I learned quick – like ‘there’s a telegraph pole at the turn in the approach to the Kwaremont and you need to avoid it’ or where the road is really bad. Experienced riders don’t get caught out by that sort of thing, the good guys don’t crash because they got their wheel jammed in a crack between the concrete. It doesn’t happen.”
Learning where tricky telegraph pole pinch-points are and where Belgian’s civil engineers had cut corners is one thing, but what can you do to ‘learn’ Roubaix, Bauer’s ‘fetish’ race? “I remember the first recon ride we did in 1985 with La Vie Claire and trying to take everything in, mainly how I was going to hold on to the bars and whether or not to use two rolls of bar tape!
“Or that there was a really big hole in Arenberg about 200 meters in which was on the best line, so you had to be ready for it and it was on the downhill stretch, so it came up fast. I preferred to jump it, but timing was important,” recalls Bauer with glorious understatement.
Bauer got better as he gained experience and, in 1990, finished second in the closest-ever finish to the race behind Panasonic’s Eddy Planckaert. “I had prepared well for it, although you’re never sure how you’ll go till you’re in the race, but I remember I counter-attacked behind (Laurent) Fignon and that was the winning move. When we started the sprint in the velodrome I did everything right, I came under (Edwig) Van Hooydonck, but I came up against a better Eddy Planckaert.
“There’s a little bit of the ‘Dammit’ to have come so close, but I rode well, there’s nothing else I could have done. Actually, in the sprint neither of us really threw the bike completely, plus,” Bauer pauses, “I still wonder why I didn’t quite see the line.”
If there’s some regret, it’s no greater than that which haunts him about his ride at the 1989 World road race championship in Chambéry. It’s a performance that few noted. “That was one of my best rides, I reckon I could have won that day. I had won the Championship of Zurich the previous week, I was going really well, I was feeling great and last time up the hill, right at the top with nine kilometres to go, I punctured just after I had made it into the front group.
“[Sean] Kelly was still behind me at that point [Kelly claimed bronze] and he was the last guy to get into the lead group. I don’t think Greg would have outsprinted me that day, no matter what gear he had,” says the Canadian with a chortle. “It was downhill to the line from where I punctured and there was no way anyone would have got back on.”
As EPO started to flood the pro peloton from the early 1990s, Bauer’s career — like that of LeMond — faded, though he did have another crack at Roubaix in 1993.
“I was getting near the end of my career and Richard Dejonckheere, brother of the Motorola sport director Noel, had been riding one day and spotted a cyclo-tourist riding this weird bike with a long wheelbase and laid-back seat angle. Richard said the guy was generating lots of power on the cobbles. So we went to Eddy Merckx, who was building our bikes at the time, gave him the specifications and asked him to build it.
“Well, Eddy was not impressed,” laughs Bauer, “but he made it, the ‘Stealth’ bike. It was good and stable, and you could generate power, but it was just not agile enough.” Nevertheless, Bauer finished 23rd on it, just four minutes behind winner Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle of Gan and no closer, alas, to claiming ‘La Pascale.’