Joe Layden Staff writer
Section: SPORTS,  Page: D1

Date: Friday, May 5, 1989

Ready or not, the curtain will officially be lifted this evening on America's latest and most ambitious venture into the world of professional cycling.

The first Tour de Trump, featuring many of the top riders in the sport, begins at 5:30 with a 2-mile prologue through the streets of downtown Albany. The $250,000 event will end 10 days and 837 miles later at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City. The National Weather Service forecast for this evening calls for temperatures in the low 60s with a 70 percent chance of showers.

Tonight's race is, essentially, little more than a warmup for the athletes and race organizers; it is an opportunity for both to prepare for the actual tour, which begins in earnest Saturday morning with a 110-mile road race from Albany to New Paltz.

The prologue is a way for the athletes to simultaneously work out pre- race jitters and introduce themselves and their event to a public that has, in all probability, never seen anything like this before.

"We've been fortunate," Michael Plant, executive director of the Tour de Trump, said Thursday at a pre-race press conference. "We've been able to bring what I feel is one of the best amateur-professional fields in the sport to this country."

To be sure, the Tour de Trump has set some lofty goals, the most notable of which is an expressed desire to become the United States' version of the Tour de France, easily the most famous bicycle race on the planet. Until recently, a race known as the Coors Classic had similar aspirations. But no longer. The Coors Classic is now only a memory, and the burden of making professional cycling a dish that will please the American sporting palate has fallen on the Tour de Trump.

It is a race with serious intentions, serious backing (primarily the name of Donald Trump, who was on the dais at Thursday's press conference), and, most important of all, serious competitors.

In the past, it has been suggested that European riders have looked upon their trips to America as little more than working vacations. The competition, after all, was not as fierce as it was back home, and a race such as, say, the Coors Classic often had no impact on the sport in Europe, where the professional season revolves around four major stage races in Italy, France, Spain and Switzerland.

A poor performance in the U.S. would be quickly forgotten by the European press, and virtually ignored by the American press.

That will not be the case in the Tour de Trump, which has attracted considerable attention from the national and international media. It is the wealthiest race ever held in the United States and one of the richest in the world this year.

"It's a big-league event," Trump said, "and it's going to get bigger and bigger and bigger. You watch."

Money, of course, makes people take notice, and while there is an undeniable air of uncertainty hanging over this entire event, there is also a tone of excitement and seriousness among those who matter most: the athletes.

Greg LeMond, who will be riding for the newly formed Coors Light-ADR team, is the only American to win the Tour de France. Though he has spent the better part of the past two years recovering from illness and injury, LeMond is one of the favorites in this race. Because he is an American, riding in an American race on American soil in a sport traditionally dominated by Europeans, LeMond is also under a bit of pressure.

"Every time I ride in the United States, I feel pressure," LeMond said. But he admitted the stakes are higher than usual for the simple reason that, "This race has a chance to be one of the biggest races in the world."

He is not alone in that belief, and perhaps that is why several of the European riders in the Tour de Trump wore looks of consternation when asked if they were taking this event seriously.

"I don't think it's a vacation to me," said Eric Vanderaerden of Belgium, who will be riding for The Netherlands-based Panasonic-Isostar team. "It will be a hard race. I haven't had such a good season so far. Vanderaerden, it should be noted, has won 19 European titles in the past five years.

Another rider who scoffed at the idea of coasting through the Tour de Trump was Stephen Rooks of PDM, another Dutch team. Rooks was runner-up in the 1988 Tour de France.

"It's not a vacation," Rooks said. "A vacation is when you go to another country and lie on the beach, not spend 10 days on a bike. Maybe there is not so much pressure here, but I look at it as an important race. It's preparation for the Tour de France."

Along with Rooks, Vanderaerden and LeMond, some of the favorites in the Tour de Trump include Andy Hampsten of the U.S.-based 7-Eleven team, winner of the 1988 Tour of Italy and two-time winner of the Tour of Switzerland; Davis Phinney of 7-Eleven, winner of the 1988 Coors Classic; Sean Kelly of PDM, three-time winner of the European Super Prestige Points title; Alvaro Mejia of Colombia's Postobon team, ninth-place finisher in this year's Tour of Americas, and Norway's Dag Otto Lauritzen of 7-Eleven, a recent winner in the Tour of Flanders.

The leading amateur rider is Viatcheslav Ekimov of the Soviet Union, holder of 10 world records and a gold medalist at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Each of these riders will have the opportunity to race by himself, against the clock, in tonight's prologue.

The 120 cyclists will leave the starting line at the Empire State Plaza - near the Egg - at one-minute intervals. They will follow a two-mile course that passes in front of the Executive Mansion on Eagle Street and loops through Lincoln Park before finishing on State Street, between the Capitol and the Empire State Plaza.

The rider with the fastest time earns the right to wear the leader's jersey in Saturday's first stage.