cycling utah July 2000

Classic Corner

"Jacques" was the first American pioneer

By Greg Overton

Here's a small quiz for you. Who was America's first rider in the Tour de France?

We'll give you a couple of hints: he moved to France from California to join a French team, he has a French-sounding name, he raced as a European pro for about a decade (mostly the Eighties), had terrific success in his first Tour, he raced as a teammate with Bernard Hinault, and he won a couple of Coors Classics.

Wow, this is easy! It's gotta be Greg LeMond, right?

Well, here's another clue: our mystery rider is a native of Moab, Utah. Still an easy answer?

Maybe some of you out there know of Jonathon Boyer. For those of you who do not, especially if you are a fan of current American heroes of pro cycling, then this pioneer of the sport should be acknowledged as a true groundbreaker.

Boyer began racing in 1970 as a junior and achieved success quickly. In fact quickly enough that only three years later, in 1973, he competed on the junior Worlds team, and raced his way to France that same year. He raced both as a senior amateur, and as a junior with different clubs in Paris. During this time, the young Boyer also attended the AC Boulogne-Billancourt, a school for grooming racers that was sponsored by the powerful Peugeot team. Other attendees of the school included Robert Millar, Stephen Roche, Phil Anderson and Sean Kelly.

In 1977, Boyer turned pro with the French LeJeune team, a fairly powerful team of the day, that included the great climber and previous year's Tour de France winner Lucien van Impe. Boyer's career seemed poised to skyrocket. But the following year and a half proved unsettling for the American. Boyer contracted an intestinal virus at the World Championships in Vienna, and then suffered a crash that kept him from riding the Tour de France. He returned to California, (where he had trained as an amateur) to recuperate.

By the time Boyer returned to Europe, the LeJeune team had folded, and he was left to join a smaller squad sponsored by Puch bicycles.

This "demotion" became a positive as there was no star rider demanding team support, and the team riders could be as aggressive as they wanted in pursuing results. He showed steady improvement, riding a terrific Tour of Switzerland, and then captured a remarkable fifth place in the rain at the 1980 World's road race in Sallanches, France. The hilly 168 mile race was won by Bernard Hinault, and the performance of the relatively unknown American with hardly any teammates, in a race where Hinault's team obliterated all challengers, was extraordinary. Surprisingly, the American press took notice, and Sports Illustrated even featured Boyer in an article.

For 1981, the team offers were coming in, and the best was from Cyrille Guimard, who was the director of the Renault-Gitane squad. Not coincidentally, this was the team led by Bernard Hinault, who had not been able to shake the American in the Worlds a few months earlier. This "charging" American was getting a lot of attention in the European press, and Guimard and Hinault were eager to capitalize on the publicity. While building the team with talented riders, they copied this move two years later with the signing of Greg LeMond.

Jonathon rode a great Tour de France that year and finished in 32nd place as a supporter to Hinault's victory. He rode particularly well in the mountains, and gained favor with the French fans and press who changed his nickname from "Jock" to the more French-sounding "Jacques", and began to pronounce his name as "Boyay" instead of Boyer.

Seeing the opportunity for marketing the sport in America, the Tour organization prompted Boyer to wear the stars and stripes jersey for the following year's race, hoping that plenty of photographs would find their way back to the U.S. (it was normally absolutely forbidden procedure to not wear team jerseys).

In 1982, Boyer had a solid season which was capped by the first rift in American pro cycling at the World's road race at Goodwood, England.

Boyer, finally with a stronger U.S. team that included neo-pro LeMond, shot out of a late break that included LeMond, Sean Kelly and Giuseppe Saronni, to begin what everyone was sure to be a winning sprint, with LeMond blocking.

Kelly and Saronni watched each other for a moment to see who would chase, believing that LeMond would sit in as a teammate of the breakaway rider. But LeMond, not feeling that Boyer had the strength to hold off the two super sprinters, bolted to bridge the gap. Apparently, Lemond felt that he could catch the two European rivals off guard, and end with an unbelievable American first and second finish.

The plan backfired, for Boyer anyway, as he saw LeMond pull past him with Kelly and Saronni in tow. The Italian Saronni blew past Lemond for the win, and Lemond took second.

Boyer, shocked at what he perceived as treason, slowed to finish tenth, his shining moment stolen. The rift remained for years between the two Americans, (but was finally laid to rest and LeMond was the presenter at Boyer's retirement ceremony).

Boyer kept improving, finishing the 1982 Tour in 22nd place, and the 1983 Tour in 12th place. But he was riding on smaller teams and losing the spotlight to LeMond, who won the Worlds in 1983 and became a serious Tour contender in the years that followed.

In all, Jock Boyer rode Paris-Roubaix six times, The Tour of Switzerland six times, three Giros d'Italia and five Tours de France over a ten-year pro career that ended in 1988 as the veteran leader of the American 7-11 team.

His biggest career misfortune is either that he was ahead of his time, or that he preceded Greg Lemond by only a few years. Whichever, he is truly a pioneer of American professional cycling and deserves recognition for breaking new ground for other Americans in the sport.

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