PEZ-Talk: American Pioneer Ron Kiefel
Before Hincapie and Leipheimer and Zabriskie, there was Ron Kiefel. A Colorado native, Kiefel was among the vanguard of American cyclists who broke into the European peloton in the 1980s, first as an amateur and national team rider, then as a member of the legendary Team 7-Eleven, which also included the likes of Andy Hampsten, Chris Carmichael, and Bob Roll.
By: Matt Purdue
In 1985, Kiefel became the first American to win a stage of the Giro d№Italia. He competed in seven Tours de France and won a bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics. Today he owns the largest bicycle shop in Colorado. I caught up with Kiefel at a huge charity ride, the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge (Pan-Mass), where he was riding to support a friend recently diagnosed with Stage IV cancer.
PEZ: How did you get involved in Pan-Mass?
Kiefel: A good friend and customer Paul Schaye told me I had to come and ride the event. Paul lives in New York, but originally came to Colorado for a bike fit with the world-renowned sports doc Andy Pruitt. Andy suggested Paul get a new bike to accommodate the recommended position changes. Andy connected Paul to me at the shop. Paul ordered a custom Serotta bike from me, and returned two months later to test ride. On his second ride on the new Serotta, as I was giving Paul descending lessons, he dove through a shaded corner that had a line of water running across. Paul crashed, broke his collar bone. We became good friends, and once I heard about Paul’s cancer battle, I had to ride the PMC in support of my good friend.
PEZ: When did you start racing?
Kiefel: I started racing when I was 15. Davis Phinney and I actually started together. I beat Davis in the Colorado state championships that first year. I took to the sport, and by 1978 was in the Junior World Championships in Washington, D.C. I went with Greg LeMond, Jeff Bradley, Greg Demgen, Chris Carmichael. LeMond, Bradley, Demgen and I won a bronze medal in the team time trial. It was the first Worlds medal for American men since 1912.
PEZ: And soon after that you were racing in Europe?
Kiefel: I made the 1979 national team, and by 1980 we were racing in Europe as amateurs. Most of our competition was the Eastern Bloc: USSR riders like Baronov and Surkirichankov, Czechs and Poles. We did the Milk Race [in Britain] in 1980 and won the prologue.
PEZ: In 1983 you won the ‘U.S. Triple’ with first place in the U.S. Nationals in the road race, time trial and team time trial. How did that happen?
Kiefel: It was one of my best years of improvement. I broke my arm in the spring of 1983 and missed the spring racing season with the national team. Thurlow Rogers was second in the Peace Race that spring. I trained smart, raced the Coors Classic and came to the nationals fresh and ready to ride. The ITT I rode more as a warm-up for the following TTT and road race events. At the turn around, Eddy B. [U.S. team director and cycling pioneer Edward Borysewicz] told me I had the fastest split of the day. I tried to go as hard as I could on the way back, but felt I had lost concentration. About a half-mile before the finish, I saw my 2-minute man in the distance and just focused on catching him. I caught him just before the finish and won nationals to boot.
The TTT was an event the 7-Eleven team dominated and we won nationals easily. The road race was in Balboa Park in San Diego. An early breakaway gained serious time during the race. Halfway through the race, Jim Ochowicz said we had to get up there. Three laps before the finish, I attacked and bridged across quickly. Dale Stetina tried to drive the breakaway group, but once I caught, and after a few attacks, Alex Grewal and I were left. I attacked Alexi two miles from the finish and went on to win solo.
PEZ: So you guys were making a statement in Europe long before the famous 7-Eleven team existed.
Kiefel: Yes. In the spring of 1984, Davis Phinney, Doug Shapiro, Thurlow Rogers, Alexi Grewal, Andy Hampsten, Jeff Bradley, Greg Demgen, Roy Knickman and I were on the U.S. National Team under the guidance of Eddy B. We went to race in Europe, and we won about 60 percent of our races. Then after our ’84 season, Jim Ochowicz called and said he was forming a pro team, 7-Eleven, so I joined him. In 1985 I went to training camp, then that spring we went to Europe.
PEZ: And 7-Eleven broke through right away?
Kiefel: Yes, in the second stage of the Tour de Med. Ron Hayman directed the team to the front. As the Euros were laughing at us, we turned the corner, the wind shifted and everyone else was stuck in the gutter. Then we just drove the pace. I was in a group wth Greg LeMond and Phil Anderson, and toward the end all the attacks started coming. Boom! Boom! Boom! Finally, I attacked with 2k to go and passed two guys. I took second on that stage to the Frenchman Eric Caritoux.
PEZ: So 7-Eleven went in there without being intimidated by anyone?
Kiefel: Here’s a story. One day I was riding along in the Tour de Med and we were in a big group on a climb. I was bumping handlebars with this little squirt of a Frenchman. My teammate, Dag Otto Lauritzen, looks over at me and says, ‘Do you know who that is?’ I looked at him and said, ‘No.’ Then he says, ‘That’s Bernard Hinault.’ I was like, ‘Ohhhh!’
PEZ: Then you had the big breakthrough in the 1985 Giro.
Kiefel: First in 1985 I won the Trofeo Laigueglia in Liguria, and I think that helped us get an invitation to the Giro. But the Giro was tough because, as usual, there were a lot of crashes and the Europeans blamed us Americans for causing all the crashes. Then came stage 15, and we were all pretty tired. We caught the break with maybe 10 or 15 kilometers to go, and there were about 50 guys left in the pack, including me and Andy Hampsten. Then three of us attacked: Acacio DaSilva, Marino LaJaretta and me. Then with about 2 kilometers to go, I attacked, caught and beat Gerrie Kneteman in the sprint. But I had no idea where I’d finished. I thought maybe there were riders ahead of me, so I didn’t know I won until the flashbulbs went off.
PEZ: And that really helped Americans earn respect in the peloton?
Kiefel: At that point, the Europeans were very gracious and excited for us. They were like, ‘Who are these guys?’ But after that when we№d get in a group fighting for position, the Europeans would look up and say, ‘Oh, that’s Kiefel. He can be up here.’ Then Andy Hampsten won stage 20 and they knew it wasn№t a fluke. They knew we knuckleheads belonged there.
PEZ: The next year, 1986, you were on the first American team in the Tour de France. Did your Giro experience prepare you?
Kiefel: You would think having ridden the Giro you’re ready, but the Tour is a totally different animal. Everyone is on their game in the Tour, so every stage is suffering. It’s just a sufferfest.
PEZ: Still, it seemed as if you guys adapted to Europe pretty well. Today you still read horror stories about American racers going to Europe and never fitting in. They hate the food, the directors, their teammates.
Kiefel: We had traveled over there as amateurs, so we learned how to adapt. When we got over there as pros, we were very comfortable. We had all ridden with Eddie B. and the national team for years. I ended up living part-time in Italy for six years. Great food and great lifestyle. I’m not sure why people make such a big deal out of French food; that’s nothing compared to Italian food. Have you ever had French pasta? Ugh.
PEZ: You retired after the 1995 season, and then came back to work in the bike shop?
Kiefel: My father actually bought Wheat Ridge Cyclery in 1973. Now I’m the general manager. We have about 30,000 square feet and are the largest single store in Colorado. It was a hard transition to make, because you mourn the loss of the racing lifestyle. But I remember when my father bought this he had his choice of this shop and an equipment rental shop across the street. Today I look at that guy running the rental shop and think, ‘That could have been me.’ I’m very happy.
PEZ: So what differentiates your shop from the competition?
Kiefel: Well, we№ve been at the forefront of various aspects of the sport. We fully embraced the mountain bike trend. On the road side, we have the full bike-fitting experience. We have a fitting studio on our mezzanine level. We also have a cycling ambassador who goes out to support big events like Ride the Rockies and the Triple Bypass. We also run women’s clinics.
PEZ: What road frames do you carry?
Kiefel: Serotta, Seven, Specialized, Trek, LeMond, and Orbea.
PEZ: So you sell a lot of custom frames?
Kiefel: We№ve seen a lot of growth in custom, because until recently most manufacturers did not have frames with shorter top tubes and longer head tubes that many people want today to ride comfortably. But now companies like Serotta and Trek are making bikes with geometry for recreational riders, so our custom sales have diminished somewhat. Plus, we have a lot of competition in Colorado for custom fitting.
PEZ: What bike are you riding in Pan-Mass?
Kiefel: I№m actually riding Ben Serotta’s personal MeiVici. I brought it back east with me because I rode it in Ride the Rockies, too.
PEZ: How do you like it?
Kiefel: It’s custom carbon, which is very difficult to make. Only two others really do it well, Parlee and Calfee. Serotta is a master of construction. I find the MeiVici to be really light and nimble and a little bit stiffer than my Serotta, but any of his bikes can be custom-tuned for a particular ride.
PEZ: What do you ride at home?
Kiefel: I ride a Serotta Ottrott and a Specialized Roubaix S-Works. That Ottrott is probably the best descending bike I have. It’s light, but really comfortable.
PEZ: You lived in Italy, so you’re a Campy guy, right?
Kiefel: I am riding Campy now because it is on Ben’s bike. At home, I have a good relationship with Shimano, so I have that on my bikes. I try pretty much all of it. I’m excited to try the new SRAM Red. It all comes down to personal choice.
PEZ: Serotta built some of the original 7-Eleven bikes that were branded as Huffy bikes. As a racer, did you pay attention to what kind of bike you were on?
Kiefel: Not really. It was a tool. But we did try to get it as light as possible. Of course, back then all the bikes were steel, which is like pig-iron compared to what is available today.
PEZ: So let’s talk about doping. Seeing Tailwind pull out of the sport must be disappointing to you.
Kiefel: It’s sad for the sport. This is a double-edged sword because we need to clean up the sport and be very clear about it. But the sad part is the riders know they are going to get tested, but these knuckleheads think they will get away with it. I am glad they are starting to clean it up, but it’s going to be painful.
PEZ: So you blame the riders for this situation?
Kiefel: I put the blame on the riders, but also on the teams because they let this happen. I think what Jonathan Vaughters is doing at SlipStream, testing all his riders: he has it.
PEZ: But doesn’t that present a potential conflict of interest, the team finding out who is doping before the sponsors or organizers do?
Kiefel: Well, the athletes have no rights when it comes to WADA. They make everyone out to be villains because if they don’t nail people, they lose funding. Athletes never win their appeals, and that’s just crazy. Riders should be subject to tests, but today there is absolutely no way for riders to protect themselves. In other sports, like track, athletes can test positive but no one knows about it for six months while the sport deals with due process. In cycling, if an A sample is positive, it is leaked immediately.
PEZ: You must have been aware of doping when you first raced in Europe?
Kiefel: We had a sense of it, but when we raced in the 1980s the stuff guys were taking didn’t have a big impact on the race. When I was racing, they did not have products that made a huge difference. People like LeMond had great natural talent from day one. Like they say, you can’t turn a donkey into a race horse.
But toward the end of my career, EPO did start to come in. In the mid 1990s, Bjarne Riis’ hematocrit was so high everyone called him Mr. 60 Percent.
Thanks to Ron for talking with us, and be sure to check out his shop online at