What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Bookshelf: The Story Of Team 7-Eleven

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a land, the United States of America, where some people believed there was a place for pro cycling and that an All-American Team could defeat the world. This was no fairy tale as the peculiar conjunction of an Olympic skating star, a determined construction worker and a fast-growing chain of convenience stores in 1980 made it possible.

Team 7-Eleven: How an Unsung Band of American Cyclists Took on the World–and Won — by Geoff Drake with Jim Ochowicz —

While the resulting Team 7-Eleven did not perhaps exactly humiliate the world, its achievements rank high in the development of North American bike racing. And now an insider’s view of events is available: behold the glory of the Slurpees!

In 1980 when Jim Ochowicz – ex-speed skater, ex-Olympic track cyclist, ex-manager of the US national speed skating team and 29 year old sometime-construction worker – began to assemble a bicycle racing team, there were a total of four American professional racers registered in the country. It would be another year before the first American, Jacques Boyer, would ride the Tour de France and six before Greg LeMond would win it. Lance Armstrong was nine years old. The United States, where track racers were once the highest-paid and most famous athletes in the country, was a comparative backwater of cycling. Although the film “Breaking Away” was released the previous year, it was rather a slim book about the Ti-Raleigh team, under the imperious leadership of Peter Post, that inspired Ochowicz to develop a finely-tuned, disciplined and, hopefully, successful European-style pro team. He had experience as a team manager and as an athlete but, more importantly, he had a unique asset in Eric Heiden, another speed skater.

Not exactly “another speed skater.” Eric Heiden had become the most celebrated sports figure in America when he won an astonishing five gold medals at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid in February 1980. Typical of speed skaters, he used a bicycle for training and the found he enjoyed racing on two wheels as well. A low-key Midwesterner not especially interested in the flood of endorsements following his Lake Placid success, he was keen to help his cycling friends and the sport.

Eric Heiden.

At the same time, the management of the Southland Corporation, owner of the rapidly growing 7-Eleven chain of convenience stores, was looking at how it might help underwrite the coming 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and was convinced to contribute $3 million for the velodrome in November 1980. As Geoff Drake notes drily in “Team 7-Eleven,” a valuable inside look at the team’s decade of activity, “few events can rival track racing for a low return on investment.” But now that Southland had shown its interest in cycling, it became the target of Jim Ochowicz, who had been putting together a team but had no sponsor. Southland, which was enjoying annual revenues of $5 billion, was interested in a team, particularly one that would be led by Eric Heiden. Without a great deal of hesitation, Southland came up with $250,000 for the 1981 season and Team 7-Eleven was born.

Although Eric Heiden was a competent rider and titular leader, the majority of the team’s efforts in the first years would fall to a group of mainly Midwestern cyclists (most of whom had also been speed skaters) whom Ochowicz had known in some capacity, including his brother-in-law. The team consisted of seven riders, including a Canadian, Ron Hayman, and enjoyed the luxury of a stretch Dodge van in team colours and sponsorship from Schwinn. The iconic red-white-green jersey design prototype was sewn up by Ochowicz’s mother-in-law on her sewing machine in Detroit.

The team shot from the squad’s first year on the road.

Ochowicz believed that a team that worked as a cohesive unit was more effective than having individually strong riders and focused on knitting the group together. After a training camp in San Diego, the team, full of confidence and wild enthusiasm, went to Texas for its first race, a two-stage affair. Team members won both stages and the saga of Team 7-Eleven was launched.

There were other teams racing in the United States, including Panasonic/Shimano, AMF and Levi’s-Raleigh, but none matched the swagger and dominance of the well-funded and motivated Team 7-Eleven. There was resentment as the team, derided as the “Slurpees” after the 7-Eleven popular frozen flavoured drink, notched a steady stream of wins over the year. There were some very strong racers who were limited by finances and lived hand-to-mouth. Ochowicz, with a keen eye for talent, was to bring in several of these opponents as team members in the coming years, with impressive results.

Davis Phinney, a gifted sprinter and strong personality who remains the American pro cyclist with the most victories, joined in 1982, at a salary of $11,000. At the same time his rival Ron Kiefel, a complement to Phinney in many ways, also joined 7-Eleven. The company began to recognize the marketing potential of the team and used its presence in race towns wherever possible to promote the brand. 7-Eleven was enjoying a massive phase of growth and became the undisputed major benefactor to US cycling. “In an 18-month period, the company funded a men’s team, a women’s team, added a men’s track team, devoted $3 million to the construction of a new Olympic velodrome, paid $1 million to be the official convenience store of the Olympic Games, and became a title sponsor fo a national track racing series, the 7-Eleven/Bicycling Magazine Grand Prix.”

In 1984 at the Olympics in Los Angeles (boycotted by the Soviet Union and its allies), the US national track team won nine medals out of a possible 15 and in the six events where the US medalled, 7-Eleven riders figured in five of them. The team had been a dominant force on the road and now at the Olympics in the United States, although felled at times by inexperience or overconfidence. In spite of historically having an uneven record at the Coors Classic, the race closest to a European stage race, Ochowicz now ratcheted up the 7-Eleven team program and remarkably persuaded the company, which had limited international activity, to fund the team to go racing in Europe in 1985. This meant turning pro, although considering that the riders were all paid it is difficult to think of them as real amateurs before this.

This is the most interesting part of the book as the story moves from apparently easy domination of domestic rivals by the team to its hard exposure to racing in Europe. Some initial small successes directed Ochowicz towards participation in the Giro, which required an additional sponsor. This was forthcoming in the form of an Italian cycling fan named Erminio Dell’Oglio, whose washing machine company, Hoonved, provided the necessary support and contacts. And a new dimension was added with the arrival of climber Andy Hampsten, on loan to 7-Eleven from the US Levi’s-Raleigh team for races in Europe. At the Giro, in spite of crashes and missteps, the team managed to win two stages near the end of the race, Hampsten made it into the top 20, and Heiden even won the InterGiro competition. The next year 7-Eleven became the first American-based team to enter the Tour de France.

Alex Stieda’s incredible jersey haul.

The account of Team 7-Eleven’s 1986 Tour shows that you can only expect the unexpected in bike racing. On the morning of the first day, Canadian Alex Stieda won the Yellow Jersey (and, in fact, all the other four jerseys as well) in the prologue. This was promptly lost in the afternoon when Team 7-Eleven rode what may be considered one of the worst team time trials ever, with two of the riders engaged in a shouting match and one throwing a bottle at his teammate. On the bright side, Davis Phinney won a sprint (although he thought he had taken second place). Five team riders had to quit due to fatigue, illness or injury. These included then-US Pro Champion Eric Heiden, who never participated in the Tour again. It had been a learning experience: Bob Roll was the highest-placed 7-Eleven rider at the end of the race in 63rd place.

The disastrous team time trial of 1986 was much improved upon in later years, like when Steve Bauer wore yellow in 1990.

In 1987, Hampsten joined the team after an interlude with a French team and won the Tour of Switzerland by one second over Peter Winnen. He was now the team leader and Ochowicz had brought in several foreign riders to augment the American and Canadian riders. Hampsten had difficulty during the Tour de France, placing only 16th, but Davis Phinney won his second stage and another stage was won by teammate Dag Otto Lauritzen (the first Norwegian to win a Tour stage). Mexican Raul Alcala, who finished 9th, took the White Jersey. But the best came at the end, when Jeff Pierce won the final stage on the Champs Йlysйes in a sprint finish ahead of Steve Bauer, who would himself join Team 7-Eleven three years later.

The climax of the book, and probably of the Team 7-Eleven story, must be the victory of Andy Hampsten at the Giro d’Italia in 1988, still the only time a non-European has won this race. Oft-repeated has been the story of the epic day in the snow over the Gavia pass, where Hampsten actually came second. The Tour de France saw no stage wins for the team but all the European experience yielded results at the final edition of the Coors Classic, where the team took all three podium spots in the men’s race, led by Davis Phinney, as well as Inga Benedict victorious for the women’s team in the women’s event.

In 1989 Eddy Merckx’s bicycle company became a team sponsor, showing the acceptance of the American upstarts into the European pro ranks but the signing of Steve Bauer in 1990 marked the last phase of Team 7-Eleven. Bauer finished a heartbreaking second in Paris-Roubaix but during the Tour de France was able to hold onto the Yellow Jersey for ten days. But now there was a challenge that did not take place on cobblestone roads: the Southland Corporation, which had raised its sponsorship from $250,000 to $3 million per year, was sliding into bankruptcy, and Ochowicz was told there would be no team for 1991. Undoubtedly a remarkably resourceful person, he was able to bring on Motorola as sponsor for the next five years, but that is another story…

There are other stories here as well that are not told, including the as-usual-forgotten women’s team and the track racers, which get a brief mention only. The book is rich in details, well-paced and very entertaining, although it is at times overly nationalistic. One can admire the team’s accomplishments (it remains the only team inducted into the US Bicycling Hall of Fame) and its positive effects on domestic cycling without referring to it as “one of the greatest cycling teams the sport has known.” The subtitle of “How an Unsung Band of American Cyclists Took on the World–and Won” is hyperbole. It is also not true as the only team members to hold the Yellow Jersey at the Tour de France, were, in fact Canadian. Although proud of doing things differently, such as eating Mexican food after the race in Paris or scandalizing the racing establishment by hiring a female soigneur (and how many of those are there twenty five years later?), the team became more successful as it became more European and the rough edges and inexperience (and perhaps some of the novelty and excitement) were gone.

The book has a final chapter detailing what has happened to the protagonists since 1990. Many of the riders have been inducted into the US Bicycling Hall of Fame and gone on to other interesting careers. After disbanding Team 7-Eleven’s successor, Team Motorola, when sponsorship ended, Jim Ochowicz eventually returned to manage the US-registered BMC Racing Team, whose leader, Australian Cadel Evans, won the 2011 Tour de France. The team features a half-dozen American riders, including Davis Phinney’s son, Taylor.

Team 7-Eleven’s creation is probably unique in cycling history and certainly unlike the way any team in Europe was put together. It was the second US team to enter the Giro and the first in the Tour de France. It was the first US team to win a Grand Tour and riders took stages in the Giro and the Tour, as well as finishing strongly in several Classics races. It dominated its domestic racing scene for a decade. But it was as the first team in the United States that was operated in a professional manner, with sufficient funding and associated marketing, developing a generation of star riders, that it raised the profile of bike racing in North America. This makes it a worthy subject for a book and “Team 7-Eleven” is an excellent addition to the history of the sport.

Although Southland went through bankruptcy, 7-Eleven stores still flourish and it is noteworthy that Winnipeg, Manitoba, carries on the team’s Canadian Yellow Jersey tradition set by Alex Stieda and Steve Bauer by being the single biggest consumer of Slurpees in the world (for the last 12 years running).

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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