Bernard Hinault, heralded for more than six months as a star attraction in the upcoming Tour of America bike race that starts Friday in Virginia Beach, may not be coming after all.
Race officials confirmed European rumors yesterday that the four-time winner of the Tour de France may not be given permission by French racing officials to ride here--even though the same French officials are jointly sponsoring the Tour of America and flew Hinault to Washington last November to announce the three-day, 275-mile race.
Hinault has said repeatedly he wants to race in the American tour.
"I want to be the first Frenchman, the first great European to win on the new continent," he told European journalists recently.
An Australian bicycle team--one of 15 international teams invited to participate--also dropped out of the race this week.
But that has made room for a team of top U.S. amateurs, according to Robert Ingraham, vice president of World Tour Cycling, the French-American firm jointly promoting the race.
Several other world champion cyclists and many of Europe's strongest professional bike racing teams will be competing in this first American tour, attracted by its novelty and $100,000 in prizes, the richest purse ever in a bicycle road race.
Three U.S. professional teams will compete, including one headed by Jonathan Boyer, the only American ever to race in the Tour de France, and another headed by John Eustice, the top American rider in last year's first U.S. professional championship in Baltimore.
This year's Baltimore "criterium" race, around a 62.5-mile circuit in Baltimore's Inner Harbor on June 5, also will offer $100,000 in prizes--to make it the richest one-day bike race in the world--and is expected to attract some of the best international sprinters, including many riders in the American tour.
Hinault, France's most celebrated cyclist, last fall accompanied Felix Levitan and other top officials of the Tour de France organization, for the announcement of the Tour of America.
Levitan's organization is copromotor of the American tour and of the classic Paris-Roubaix bike race that also takes place this weekend.
Hinault has a commitment to ride in it, for his Renault Elf-Gitane team, but he has said repeatedly he wants to come to America.
American cycling sources speculate that Levitan may be coming under pressure to keep Hinault at home because his departure might undermine the famous French race--known as "the Hell of the North" for its cobbled streets, unchanged since Napoleon's time, which the cyclists must endure.
Levitan and other French officials last fall said Hinault was expected to race in the American tour--why else would they bring him over from Europe for the announcement, they said--but then said that final approval could not be given until shortly before the race.
The Renault team is still committed to the American tour, Ingraham said yesterday.
It will be one of six French professional teams competing in the Tour of America, along with three Italian teams, one Dutch and one Canadian team.
While many team riders have already been named, the complete roster of the 75 riders will not be released by officials until just before the race.