DAVIS PHINNEY: The PEZ Interview Pt 1
We recently racked up quite the phone bill listening with campfire fascination as Davis Phinney shared with us his memories of galloping full-speed into the Euro-bunch with the rest of the American cowboys on his 7-Eleven team. American racers have come a long way since – but here’s how it all started…
Note: We apologize for the lack of pics with this story, but this is such a good read that we chose to publish it as is. We’ll have some photos fo rthe rest of the interview in the coming weeks.
When I called Davis Phinney, (America’s most winning bike racer), at his home in Italy, I knew I would be talking with an American pioneer. What I didn’t know was that I was about to be regaled by a story-teller with an encyclopedic knowledge of bike racing spanning over two decades. I listen to the phone wondering if this is a busy signal or an Italian ring tone. Davis soon answers the phone with a quick “prontoooo” (the typical Italian greeting) and we’re soon chatting away like old buds.
1985 – 7-ELEVEN HITS THE BEACH
Randall: What was it like when you 7-Eleven guys went over to Europe – is it true you were called cowboys by some of the Euro-pros? Tell us about the experience.
Davis: Well cowboys in the sense that we came from the west and we had a ‘gung-ho, we want in on the game too’ attitude. It wasn’t so easy to get into the club – just because we didn’t really know what we were doing and we didn’t have the support crew or network that knew either. We were all learning together. We turned our entire U.S. based amateur team pro and just went to Europe in the first year in 1985. It was like jumping into the middle of the Atlantic and trying to swim back to the United States with rudimentary swimming skills (laughs).
Randall: What did you think of the Euro pros – were you awed, impressed?
Davis: Certainly we were impressed by them. I went there with very specific objectives. I had trained really, really hard and I wasn’t going to be cow-towed by anyone. So in that sense I was probably more in the face of the guys than I would otherwise be. I was probably a little more brash, a little more careless…
Davis’ determination and competitive spirit are evident in his voice. Listening to him, you get a sense of the warrior setting foot on foreign soil for the first time;
Randall: Sort of like a Lance Armstrong ):
Davis: Yeah – a little bit like Lance, a little bit like Greg Lemond. We realized we weren’t going to get anywhere if we just dropped into the hierarchy and we were the bottom of the food chain – that wasn’t going to work. I went there with very specific objectives. In the 1st race we rode, the Tour de Bessege, I got in the top 10 every day and was 8th overall. I was there to race.
Randall: So you guys started winning and your 7-Eleven team got a yellow jersey.
Davis: That was in ‘86 – a year later. I’m really talking about when we got off the plane in ‘85 and we had no support. By ‘86 we were just neophytes in the tour but we had at least raced a season and a half in the peloton in Italy, Belgium and France. In ‘85 when we first did the Tour of Italy, we just got blamed for everything. Every time there was a crash it was ‘oh, you Americanos’ and everything was our fault.
But it was cool to be part of that whole experience.
WOOKIE SMOKES LAIGUEGLIA
Davis pauses as he reflects for a moment. I wanted to ask him about a favorite racing highlight. Without prompting, Davis begins to recall a few memoirs. I kick back with my Grande Iced Americano and enjoy;
Davis: We hadn’t been in Europe a month and we went to the season opener in Italy, which was the Trofeo Laigueglia. Literally everybody on the team got dropped except for Ron Kiefel. On the final hill with 5k to go, he throws in a ‘Wookie’ hill sprint – his nickname is ‘Wookie’. So Wookie throws in this hill sprint and drops the entire pro peloton except for the national champion of Italy – Pietro Algieri.
Algieri sucks Ron’s wheel down the hill towards the finish. Ron pulls over and Algieri won’t pull. So Ron just looks at him like, I’m not going to pull – you’re the national champion of Italy. So Algieri takes a pull and Ron just smokes him in the sprint and wins the first major race of the season in Italy. Then it started to ease up on us because some of the big guys kinda took notice of us.
One of the big riders of the day, Gibi Baronchelli, and his team were staying at the same hotel as our team in Laigueglia. That night we were toasting Ron’s win with champagne and Baronchelli came over. He was very complimentary and said ‘way to go – it’s good to have a team from America here’. That really helped us a lot. People like Franceso Moser, Giuseppi Saronni and Baronchelli – they were into the fact that we were there. It was some of the lesser known teams that loathed the fact that these interlopers were in Europe doing well.
DAVIS SMOKES THE TOUR
Randall: It built from there and in ‘86 you got a stage win in the Tour de France and Alex Steida got the yellow jersey.
Davis: Yeah, Alex got the yellow jersey on the very first day and then promptly lost it that afternoon in the TTT, which was a total debacle.
Davis let’s out a sigh as he recalls the episode;
Davis: That was where we went from having this wonder ride by Alex in the morning to everyone laughing at us. But the next day I just got in the right break and did all the right things and ended up winning the stage on my 2nd day in my very 1st Tour de France.
Davis laughs as he continues to describe the turn of events;
And then the Europeans were just scratching their heads – they were like (faux accent) we’re never inviting you back again – there’s something wrong here.
Paul Sherwen was just off the bike and doing his 1st TV stint with the Tour. He interviewed me at the finish line in northern France and he said ‘what you just did on your second day in your first TDF I tried for 7 years and never did once”.
BORDEAUX ’87 – DAVIS HITS THE TURBO
Randall: Tell us about your 2nd Tour stage win.
Davis: That was the following year in Bordeaux. At that point I was more established and had a higher expectation of myself and had been sprinting fairly well in the previous stages. I was getting 3rds and 4ths but I always felt like I didn’t have the turbo boost in the last 100m that I needed to hold off guys like Sean Kelly or van Poppel or Eric Vanderarden or Guido Bontempi – guys who were at the top of their game.
Before Bordeaux we had a couple of setbacks because (addled brain that I have … not sure if it was Chris or Jeff Bradley who dropped out, in fact I think it was Jeff, so let’s just say ‘we had two guys abandon with digestive problems. So we were down two players pretty early on. The team was starting to get a little feeling of panic thinking things were going wrong and we weren’t doing as well as we thought.
I just had this really good sense all along that Bordeaux was going to be a good day for me. I told Team Director Mike Neel (no ‘e’) on the day that the 2 guys were dropping out – ‘I think I’m going to win in Bordeaux’. And that day turned out to be one of those really remarkable days that you hope to get sometime in your life where just everything goes your way.
I never had a sense of panic in the race. I felt very strong and relaxed. As the race came to Bordeaux, it got faster and faster and wilder. I was always on the right wheel – it was just like I was on a puppet string. We came around the last corner in Bordeaux with about 400m to the line and I just punched it. I hit the turbo boost for the first time in that whole tour and there was just no way was I not going to win.
DAVIS PHINNEY – AMERICAN PIONEER
Randall: Let me ask you just one more question. I look at you and the guys on the 7-Eleven team as pioneers of pro racing in North America, and then going over to Europe. My sense is it was the first real pro team from North America. Now you look back – Greg won three tours. Bobby Julich reached the podium. Tyler has made his mark in the Tour. Lance is going for an unprecedented sixth win. When you reflect on all this, how do you feel – are you proud, surprised, what are your thoughts?
Davis: Yeah, I think all of those, all of the above. I’m proud and infinitely pleased to have had the moment in time that we had. You couldn’t do what we did now – take a team and turn it pro and try to ride the Tour de France. It doesn’t work that way anymore. We had the confluence of history. We had a great sponsor 7-Eleven – and we had a visionary Team Director Jim Ochowicz.
We led directly to Lance in the sense that, because of Jim there was a 7-Eleven team. Because of the support of 7-Eleven and some of the riders on the team wanting to do it, and Jim being happy to facilitate it, we turned the team pro and went to Europe. That team led to Motorola, which lead to Lance’s whole pro career for the most part. Jim has been a huge benefactor and supporter and organizer of good things for Lance.
Because of 7-Eleven Chris Carmichael had a pro forum that led to his coaching organization and his expertise in his work with Lance. Tom Schuler had a platform to grow his organization, which was supportive of cycling for so many years with the Saturn program and the Volvo-Cannondale program.
The list just goes on and on. We had a yellow jersey holder in Alex Steida and Steve Bauer played a big role and wore the yellow jersey for 10 days in 1990.
When I look back, starting from ground zero in ‘85, to winning 2 stages in our first Tour of Italy. And we convinced Andy Hampsten to turn pro. He was just sort of going in circles in America. In ‘85 in March we got back from our first tour of duty in the pro peloton. Ron Kiefel and I were riding next to him and said, Andy – you should ride with us – it’s so great to be in Europe. And he ends up having this incredible career and winning the Tour of Italy and two Tours of Switzerland with 7-Eleven.
So the impact is really, really far reaching. Lemond played a big part – but he was on his own rocket. He did more things better than we ever did but he did them in a more classic format. He rode as an American but on European teams. He had a huge impact but it was a different kind of impact. We were (lose ‘more’) helpful because we had an American based team that exposed many more North American riders to the sport in Europe and that kept the interest going beyond what Greg was doing at the time.
We could have continued but guess what – Davis and Connie were getting ready to take their two children to ride a Gran Fondo. The sporting accomplishments of Davis and Connie are too numerous to list and their positive impact on the sport continues to be felt to this day. Recently they have climbed beyond cycling to take on new challenges and to establish new goals. In doing so they have continued with their pioneering ways. Their motto is live life and in that regard they lead by example.
That’s all for today, but stay tuned for more of our interview with Davis coming soon…
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WIN A SEROTTA OTTROTT Dream Bike – AND HELP FIND A CURE FOR PARKINSON’S DISEASE Only 500 tickets will be sold, for $100 each. Draw date is July 31, 2004
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