It didn't matter that he lost the race. Eric Heiden clearly stole the show at yesterday's 50-kilometer Senior Men's National Capital Bike Race around the Ellipse.
The race was marred on the final turn by an accident that eliminated 15 contestants fromt he race and sent five to George Washington University Hospital. It may also have prevented Heiden from wining the event.
A hospital spokesman said last night that all five were treated and released.
The crash robbed Heiden of a chance to place in one of the top positions.Heiden was not injured and finished 25th. He had been in fifth place at the end of the preceding lap.
The crowd was pro-Heiden before the accident and afterward.
"Go, Eric," screamed several fans over the whirring hum of bicycle tires each time the racers crossed the finish line during the 50-lap race.
After the race, while limping competitors shook hands and rubbed each other with lianment, the green-and-orange van belonging to Heiden and his 7-Eleven/Schwinn teammates was mobbed by youngsters asking the former Olympian for autographs.
A quarter-mile away, on a ragged blanket, sat Bruce Donaghy, the winner in national record time of 1 hour 5 minutes 38 seconds.
"The sport is really growing," said Donaghy, 22, as he surveyed the estimated 5,000 spectators milling about. "I get really excited when there are lots of spectators and media around.
"A lot has to do with Eric Heiden. His presence has elevated the sport immensely."
Despite the relative lack of attention lavished on Donaghy, the winner had reason to be ecstatic. This was his second consecutive victory in this prestigious bike race and be managed to shave 1:05 off the national record.
Finishing second and third were Leonard Harvey Nitz and Brent Emery, both Donaghy teammates from the 1980 U.S. Olympic team.
"I'm really disappointed," said Heiden after the race as he signed autographs and fingered a gold skate that dangled from a chain around his neck. "I was in good position for three-fourths of the last lap . . . then I saw two guys go down . . . and I got caught behind that crash."
Yesterday's race was the unofficial start of the bike racing season, which goes until September. The course around the Ellipse is considered by bike racers to be one of the fastest in the country and was made even faster this year by repaving on the stretch nearest the White House.
"It was a neat race," said Heiden, grinning. "Fast, very fast."
However, some competitors blamed the fast track for the crash.
"It was a very, very fast race . . . and an easy circuit," said racer Alan McCormack, a former member of the 1976 Irish Olympic Bicycle Team currently racing with Team Express from Pennsylvania. McCormack blamed the accident on the configuration of the field at the end of the race. "Today it was easy for a not-so-fit guy to stay with the pack."
The accident occurred on the final turn as the racers were bunched together for the final spurt. The racers had stayed in a pack for most of the race, never spreading out over the field, as commonly happens in bicycle racing. As the pack approached the finish line, racers say a sort of panic broke out and several bokes crashed.
"It looked like a bomb went off," said one observer, pointing to puddles of blood in the middle of the road.
Earlier in the day, another national bicycle speed record was broken, by Betsy Davis, 22, of Nutley, N.J. In the strange world of bicycle racing it is possible to be the first to cross the finish line, set a national record (38:49.23) and not win the race.
That is what happened to Davis, who finished second after it was determined that Karen Strong, 27, of St. Catharines, Ontario, had beaten Davis in more laps during the 25-kilometer women's race.
"I'm not disappointed, I lost to a very good rider," said Davis.