Brancale Stories: Greg Oravetz July 17 2018
Former professional cyclist Greg Oravetz shares some old stories with Brancale. These include what it was like racing during the 80’s and 90’s, winning the USPRO national championships his rookie season, his view on the evolution of bad cycling hairdos, heavy steel bicycles and the infamous “leather jacket” climber’s jersey at the Tour of Colombia…
Few riders dominated the US racing scene during the 1980’s and 90’s the way Greg Oravetz did. Oravetz was a big, powerful rider weighing 180 pounds with a 6-foot, 3-inch stature. He turned professional in 1989 with the legendary Coors Light cycling team. In his rookie year, he won the CoreStates USPRO national championships and the resulting stars and stripes jersey. To this day, he is still the youngest rider to have won the race.
Brancale asked him to share some stories from his years as a professional cyclist.
Tell us a little bit about what the racing scene was like in the US back in the 80’s and 90’s compared with now.
Greg Oravetz: “The 1980's were so different from the 1990's. I personally started getting serious with cycling in the early 80's. I went to a training camp run by Greg LeMond. The camp changed everything for me. It was a tipping point where I realized one day I could be a professional.
In the 80's, equipment was rarely the deciding factor in races. Bicycles were so low tech that it was a level playing field. It was also around this time when cycling apparel began to evolve. Cycling shorts went from being wool with a natural chamois to being Lycra with a synthetic chamois. Back then, we really thought that was a break through!
When the 90's rolled around, the the bad hairdos started and equipment became a lot more important. At the time, my bikes still weighed 22 pounds. As they say, ‘steel is real.’ Real heavy and real flexible.
Throughout the 90’s, they kept adding gears to the bikes and moved the shifting from the down tube to the handlebars. The hardshell helmet became mandatory and the leather hairnet vaporized. Day-Glo was white hot!
Guess what? Day-Glo is back. Bad hairdos and white shoe laces are all back. It is all new again because people forget why they stopped doing it in the first place."
What were some of your favorite races?
“My favorite race was Paris-Roubaix by miles. I raced it two times as an amateur. To my great regret, I never had the opportunity to make it to the starting line as a professional even though I believe it was the best race for me. I loved the classics. The wind, narrow roads and the pave defined the day. You needed a lot of luck to get through these races.”
You spent some time early in your career racing in France for an amateur team, how was that as an American?
“Racing in Europe was the best experience ever. I was able to see how my body coped to racing 100+ mile races every week and I realized how much more it suited my talents. Riding around in circles was never something I liked, but that is mostly what you have in America. When I was in France racing, Greg LeMond was the prince and so being an American gave me a chance to test myself.”
You won the USPRO Championships in Philadelphia in your rookie season, what was that like?
“1989 was a big year for my career as a cyclist. I was now a teammate of LeMond and Alexi Grewal who I saw win the ‘84 Olympic gold medal in my backyard in California. Coors Light was the top domestic-based team in America. The Tour de Trump (later the Tour Dupont) and the USPRO Championships in Philly were the biggest races that year. After a very disappointing Tour de Trump where I fell ill and had to abandon, I trained really hard for Philly. As an underdog, I had a huge advantage. Even though I had been one of the top amateurs in France in 1988, I was almost completely unknown in the US. During the race in Philadelphia, everyone watched LeMond and Alexi Grewal [ed. LeMond had flown in on the Concorde for the day to race in Philadelphia before going on to win the Tour de France the following month by 8 seconds]. I made it into the key break away of the race along with Ron Kiefel and Mike Engleman. In the end, my training payed off and I was able to finish off what I had dreamed of all summer. I am still the youngest winner of that race.”
Do you have any crazy stories you can share with us?
“A crazy story? I could write a book on crazy stories! One funny one is from the Tour of Colombia, back in I believe 1991. The team needed a good training block in warm weather and the altitude of Columbia was a bonus. The race was pure insanity in terms of safety, the fans and the hot weather. We were just beginning our season and did not really have the same fitness level as the locals. But when the opportunity for a victory is there why not try? The first stage was an individual time trial and we had Steve Swart who was an amazing time trialist.
Swart was nearly last to go on the day and he just cooked it, finishing a good margin ahead of the next rider. With only a few guys left–none of whom had any real chance of beating Swart–it was time for him to clean up and get ready for a podium appearance to put on his new tour leader jersey. Then as we stood on our balcony watching the last rider go blasting by, to our amazement this rider who was one of the world’s most famous climbers beat Swart by almost 20 seconds! How? Simple, he sat on the bumper of not one, but a paceline of three motorcycles going 35mph! That was just the beginning though.
The next stage was a flat one and we wanted to show that we were not just there for a sun tan. As we approached the finale, I was part of the lead out train and the second-to-last taking my turn at the front before our sprinter would raise his arms in victory. Only it was one banner too soon and he looked up to see yet another banner and had to keep going. Luck was not on our side!
The weather was in the upper 90's most days and the king of the mountain (KOM) jersey was black. Yes, not all climbers get a polka dot jersey. We dubbed it the ‘leather jacket.’ The black climber’s jersey was a death sentence to every rider who put it on. The team decided not to try for the KOM jersey because of all the great local climbers. It was such an important jersey for these locals who were dying to get it–and then really dying once they got it!
Oh, let's not forget the huge crowds and stray dogs. It is great to race where people have passion and the crowds are big. At the same time, many times we would roll into a large town thinking it was going to be a good sprint but then a wild dog would run into the field, crashing the unlucky. I closed my eyes on more than one occasion!
What opened my eyes were the awe-inspiring climbs and those who lined the mountain roads to cheer for the brave. One stage I was feeling good and managed to be in the top 20 on a big climb. Some kids were along the side of the road asking to push us and others were on BMX bikes, giving us a run for our money up the climb. When they would finally tire, they would reach over and swipe the water bottle right off our bikes. It was an amazing and hilarious experience.”
Tell us about your best day on the bike.
“My best day on the bike was my first classic win at Paris-Marquenterre in 1987, as an amateur. It was a race that finished up near the northern coast of France. My legs were so good that day that I could simply ride in whatever gear I felt like. When I finally decided to attack, it seemed effortless, almost like I just ‘fell’ off the front. The weather was perfect–in the high 70's–and in the final 10 kilometers I pulled over a minute ahead of my final breakaway companions to win solo. My sponsor was so proud, it was a beautiful moment.”
Tell us about your worst day on the bike.
“My worst day on the bike would have been at the Tour of West Virginia in the early 90s. It was raining and about 38 degrees outside. Our team had missed the move and I got put on the front to chase for about 60 miles. We did not have much help from other teams and I really wanted to abandon and climb into the warmth of the team car. My legs felt totally flat but somehow I found the reserves to keep fighting for my team. The effort felt like I took a 100-mile pull into a headwind while someone was holding onto my seat. On top of that, my hands and feet were frozen.”
What are you up to today?
“I still work in the cycling industry today. I have been an outside sales rep for Cannondale, Cervelo and Speedplay. Now I work with Belmont Wheelworks, a premier bicycle retailer and with Gerrard Cycles. On the side I am also still involved with cycling camps. A year ago I worked a camp for Ryder Hesjedal which was a lot of fun.”