While New Paltz may not have been the epicenter of the Donald Trump presidential campaign, it certainly was the main stage for the first annual Tour de Trump cycling competition that swept into the Village of New Paltz on May 6 of 1989 to the cheers and jeers of more than 6,000 spectators who lined the streets, sidewalks and rooftops of downtown Main Street.
Not one to be outdone by anyone or anything, particularly involving sports promotion, the then-younger billionaire partnered with NBC Sports, the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino and Jefferson-Pilot Productions to launch a ten-day bicycle race that would span five states and include some of the biggest names in cycling — including Greg LeMond, who until then was the only American ever to win the Tour de France. Trump and his team were hopeful that this cycling extravaganza would gain traction and become the American equivalent of the well-established and heralded Tour de France.
To do so, the topography had to be challenging enough and the prize money big enough to entice top-tier professional cyclists from around the world to compete. Trump and crew ponied up a $250,000 purse prize. The race planners designed an approximately 900-mile course that began in Albany, just outside of the Egg on the Empire State Plaza, and traveled through upstate New York, traversing to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland before culminating in a dramatic four-mile time trial sprint along the Atlantic City Boardwalk to the Trump Casino, where the race would conclude. The race included routes through the Poconos, Blue Ridge Mountains, Hudson River Valley, Catskills and New Jersey shoreline.
While this route might not have rivaled the French Alps, it did put the riders to the test by having them cycle through Devil’s Kitchen in the Catskills and up and over the Shawangunk Ridge towards the flats of New Paltz and the throngs of spectators, protestors and food vendors who were lining the downtown. “I can remember driving with some friends up to Mountain Rest Road to watch the cyclists come down the hill,” says James Sullivan. “We parked and walked to one of those tight turns just below the aqueduct, and when they came by, I just could not believe how fast they were going. They came around that bend at least 60 miles per hour. I’ll never forget it. It just blew my mind.”
Although there were scenic vistas and epic climbs throughout the race, it was the 110-mile first stage of the race that was the main focus of television coverage by NBC Sports, which had camera crews mounted on two motorcycles and a helicopter to follow the racers from Albany to New Paltz, with another crew poised to capture the finish outside of the Elting Memorial Library.
According to local newspaper reports and photographs, various local restaurants including the Gay Nineties, Dominick’s Restaurant and P & G’s had sold a couple of hundred ice cream sandwiches, 125 pounds of cheese steak, 150 pounds of sausage and peppers, 80 pounds of friend dough and ten gallons of chili to feed the masses flocking towards the extravaganza before the first cyclist had even rolled into town. The streets were packed with spectators, journalists and television crews, along with local police led by then-chief Dennis Zappone, plus the New Paltz Rescue Squad and other emergency service vehicles in case of any incidents.
While Trump has always been known for his theatrics, he couldn’t have found a better match than the hamlet of New Paltz. The tops of roofs were packed to the brim with people leaning perilously over what is now McGillicuddy’s. Members of the SUNY New Paltz Theatre Arts Department staged several numbers from the musical Hair in the middle of the street in front of Ariel Booksellers. There were Taste of New Paltz vendors, a skateboard demonstration, a jazz workshop and music performed by Howie and the Electric Kool-Aid Testers. As longhaired thespians danced barefoot to “Let the Sunshine In,” another group led an anti-Trump protest wearing papier-mâché pig heads and slogans that read “Die Yuppie Scum,” “Trump = the Anti-Christ,” “Homeless? Blame Trump” and “The Art of the Deal: The Rich Get Richer!”
While this amalgam reached a fever pitch, the winner of Stage One, a Russian amateur, 23-year-old Viatcheslav Ekimov, crossed the finish line, followed by Jan Theunisse, 26, of the Netherlands. They were presented with awards by then-town supervisor Bill Yeaple and longtime village mayor Tom Nyquist, who was quoted as saying, “It’s wonderful for New Paltz to be known for a clean, healthy sport like cycling rather than its drug reputation from the 1960s.”
Kevin Saunders, then a sophomore at New Paltz High School, remembers the day clearly. “There was such a buzz in the air. We were excited, and were anxiously waiting for the cyclists to see who would win the first stage. I happened to come across this Russian cyclist who was laying in the grass, probably catching his breath after the finish, and found out it was Viatcheslav Ekimov. I asked for his autograph, and think I still have it somewhere!”
While the first Tour de Trump was proclaimed a major success for the town and village of New Paltz, particularly by its local merchants, the second annual Tour de Trump came with more controversy. There were letters in the Huguenot Herald arguing the merits of the bike race, as well as letters calling Trump’s business practices into question and wanting no part of his name staining their town. The Ulster County Coalition for the Homeless rallied against letting the Tour de Trump back.
In typical New Paltz form, then-town supervisor David Lent and Mayor Nyquist argued over whether or not the potential draw of tourist dollars and global attention to their hamlet was worth the cost of police services, Department of Public Works overtime, traffic congestion and hassle. On top of these financial concerns, the Tour de Trump organizers were asking that New Paltz put up $15,000 to sponsor the race in their town. Local dress manufacturer Anthony Sicari ended up giving the organizers $7,500 to help secure the race in New Paltz.
The Trump team also wanted Stage Ten of the 1990 race to finish in New Paltz, rather than having the media attention of Stage One. While the first year had landed on a sunny Saturday, the May 10, 1990 race was scheduled for a Thursday, which local officials were concerned would unjustly interfere with school bus stops and traffic. They eventually worked with SUNY New Paltz to have the race be rerouted through the campus and finish by the college pond. When the day came, turnout was way down, due to pounding rains and the weekday time slot.
After May of 1990, it was the end of the road for the Tour de Trump which one organizer had claimed would be “the biggest thing to hit the Hudson Valley since the glaciers!” While the Tour did make an impression on New Paltz and wedge its way into the history books, it did not have the glacial impact that it was billed to be. But it did end up being one stage of Trump’s long and bumpy road to the White House.