PEZ Talk: Geoff Drake, Author Of Team 7-Eleven

We’ve just reviewed the new Team 7-Eleven book here on PEZ, but wanted to know more about the story behind the story, as it were. I caught up with author Geoff Drake from his California home and found him fresh from promoting the book, including an appearance at the opening party at this year’s Interbike in Las Vegas.

“It was the 30th anniversary of the show and the 30th anniversary of the 7-Eleven team,” Drake explained. “We had a group of 7-Eleven riders so it was somewhat of a reunion. We sat in a semi-circle and we had, I would guess, four to five hundred people, handing books around to be signed, passing them through the circle – Jock Boyer, Ron Kiefel, Tom Schuler, Greg Demgen, Danny Van Haute – and we all signed these books.”

Author Geoff Drake with Jim Ochowicz at the Interbike ’11 book launch.

PEZ has already called the book an excellent addition to the history of the sport and Drake explained that the feedback had so far been “very gratifying” and had included a mention on the NBC Sports website as a recommended Christmas gift, perhaps a rare feat for a cycling book to get mainstream attention. Being able to read about the exploits of the team has also been very gratifying for us and PEZ wondered about the enduring appeal of 7-Eleven: was there an underdog factor?

“There was very much an underdog element to this story,” Drake agreed. “These guys were successful in their own country, but the racing scene in the US was kind of a backwater. When they went to Europe they were laughed at; they were blamed for the crashes; they brought a cultural milieu with them that didn’t exist in Europe at the time – Mexican food, female soigneurs. They had an impact there. It wasn’t all smooth going and their time was marked in the early years by really embarrassing defeats punctuated by amazing accomplishments.”

Drake was a cycling journalist and editor during the late 80s and 90s, first for VeloNews and then for Bicycling, so writing the book was a step back in time. “I kind of came of age in my career when these guys were achieving all their great accomplishments,” Drake recounted. “I like to think of myself during that period as an experiential journalist. So I would go to the training camps, and I would ride, and at least ride for a while and suffer until I had to crawl into the team van. But I tried to spend a lot time with these guys and enjoyed being around them. That was one of the motivational factors for the book. For me, getting back in touch with all those guys was great.”

So Geoff was ideally placed to write the book, but PEZ wondered in general why it had taken so long for someone to fill in these missing years of American cycling history. “The whole idea had to ripen for a while,” Drake explained. “I’m not sure it would have resonated with people ten years ago – it was too soon. For people that don’t come from cycling, when they look at the sport they think ‘Lance Armstrong’, which is natural. What makes this story poignant is that maybe Lance wouldn’t have accomplished what he did if 7-Eleven hadn’t laid the groundwork in Europe. Granted, Lance was an astounding athlete who achieved miraculous things. But would he have achieved those things so early? I think that’s open to question, given that the 7-Eleven team became the Motorola team under Jim Ochowicz, which is where Lance turned pro. It was figuratively and literally the foundation for what Lance was to accomplish. The peloton was now accustomed to Americans asserting themselves. So in all those ways, the time was ripe for this book to come about.”

And his own involvement in the book project? “Racing was one of my beats in the 80s and 90s. Then I moved into other areas of journalism and communications but still retained the contacts in cycling. Ted Costantino at VeloPress contacted me. So, long story short, I’m back full circle with this book working for the organization that employed me in the late 80s, VeloNews, with VeloPress being their book publishing arm. Kind of fun and kind of poetic.”

As PEZ has already mentioned in its review of the book, there’s a lot of detail on the early years of US cycling and the personalities involved. The inception of the team seemed to come down to a remarkable confluence of individuals coming together at the right time with the same vision. “It’s interesting because I talk a lot in the book about endemic and non-endemic sponsorship,” Drake explained. “Is a bike racing team more likely to get sponsorship from within the sport, or is it of sufficient marketing prowess and value to merit a non-endemic sponsor – Panasonic, Toyota, or Jelly Belly – any number of entities that don’t necessarily have a connection to cycling? While there had been non-endemic sponsors in the 80s (like Panasonic) 7-Eleven came in on a scale that had not been experienced in the US before. All of a sudden there were team vans, they were flying to races while everyone else was driving, and staying in nice hotels while everyone else was sleeping on friends’ floors. It was a different scale. And it came about from the vision of one guy – Jim Ochowicz – who had a notion that it needed to occur in the US and could occur.”

Revisiting that early part of the book, I wanted to know to what extent it was intentional to add in all the detail about the nascent racing scene in the US in the early 80s, to help readers not so familiar with that time to put it in context. “I really did,” Drake said. “I wanted to set the scene of riders racing and sacrificing in what we know is a very painful sport – pain is the currency of bike racing – and competing in this sport for which there was no great tangible reward. You could go to a race in Colorado or Vermont or wherever and win a jar of apple cider or something. It just wasn’t a well-moneyed sport. You did it because you loved it and because there was a sort of mystical attraction. It was a different time.

“The other thing was that I wanted to make it a human interest story that would appeal to anyone. I would hope that people could pick up this book and say ‘these are compelling characters’. I covered racing for a long time and wrote a lot of stories about racing; you can speak the insider language of breakaways and time gaps forever and there’s a place for that but I didn’t think that this book was the place for that. I do get into the nitty-gritty of stages, but I wanted to draw out the personalities of a lot of these guys, who are interesting people and who went on to do interesting things.”

After the horrific conditions on the Gavia in 1988, Andy Hampsten returned to the Giro with a new number on his bike, and kit better suited to the cold wet weather.

Drake certainly does not shy away from the nitty-gritty when it is required, such as Andy Hampsten’s ascent of the Gavia pass in the Giro in 1988. “I really tried to dig into the details – what was he handed up? Hot tea, and the water bottle drooped into his bottle cage. Then a rider on another team was handed a bottle at the top of the pass and he dropped it because he was frozen like a statue. Time slowed down on that day and it deserved a lot of detail.”

The book also considers the impact of the team during that era, in the American and the European pelotons, and the platform that it established for riders to go to Europe and compete on an American team, particularly later as it morphed into the Motorola team. But PEZ wondered if there was a more enduring legacy. “I was out riding my bike the other day,” Drake said. “And who should ride by but someone in a 7-Eleven jersey! This was something that was invented over a coffee table or in just one meeting and has become one of the most enduring jerseys. There’s a broad recognition that that team did something successful. There are a lot of people that have memories of that time, and if they don’t, then this book will help to fill in the blanks. They did occupy a very important part of US cycling history. The original scope of the book was to go through Motorola, but during the research and writing it became apparent that this was story in and of itself that would form a coherent book. Otherwise it would be perhaps overly long, despite the stories that were a continuation of the 7-Eleven team.”

So perhaps a follow-up book? “We haven’t talked about it!” Drake said. “But it would be a project I would love to do – I covered cycling in those years, too.” At which point I also wondered if perhaps there could be an Andy Hampsten biography worth considering and we discussed Hampsten’s accomplishments. “He’s a highly intelligent guy, and he has a really interesting story. He was very willing and free with his time in the research for this book. God knows how many times he’s had to retell the story of the Gavia! (Andy told PEZ about it here.) He just did it with patience and great detail. He did a great job; he’s a great person to deal with and his is a story that deserves to be written.”

Well, to the necessary parties required to make it happen, we would love to read that story as well. Many thanks to Geoff for taking the time to talk to PEZ and to VeloPress for helping make it happen.

Team 7-Eleven: How an Unsung Band of American Cyclists Took on the World–and Won
by Geoff Drake with Jim Ochowicz
VeloPress, 2011, pp. 322
ISBN: 978-1-934030-53-0, hardcover

Purchase the book from VeloPress HERE!

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