What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Talk: Team 7-Eleven Founder Jim Ochowicz

If you are like me, the month of July is all about the Tour de France. This year, four American teams and ten American cyclists participated in the Tour, and an American team won it. Much of the growth and success of American racing in the European peloton over the last 20 years can be attributed to one man: Jim Ochowicz.

Jim took his love for cycling, borrowed some European speed skating training philosophy, combined that with the enthusiasm, marketing experience and deep pockets of an American company and created the 7–Eleven bicycle racing team. Velopress, author Geoff Drake with Jim Ochowicz have published another instant classic that tells the story of “how an unsung band of American Cyclists took on the world – and won.”

Many of us know about Lance Armstrong, the Motorola and Discovery teams. The new book about Team 7-Eleven introduces us to the genesis of those teams and the role Jim Ochowicz played in the successes of that early American team 7–Eleven.

Matt: You described a few books and magazines that influenced you as a kid and got you interested in professional cycling. Specifically, you mentioned the pamphlet “World Champions I have Known” by Rene de Latour.

Jim: Funny enough, I was fourteen years old and I got into cycling in Milwaukee. Who would know anything about professional cycling? I certainly didn’t. A guy that was part of our club, The Milwaukee Wheelmen thought that I would be interested in these books, so he gave me a box of books. And they were these old British magazines – Coureur Sporting Cyclist and French magazines – Miroir du cyclisme – 1959,1960 and1961 copies with Simpson, Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil. This was even pre Merckx. I was just fascinated by the pictures – they just looked different than I looked on a bike. They had a different sort of positioning. The climbs they were on, up the hills we never had, certainly in Milwaukee. I think all of that was just very interesting to me.

Matt: There were a number of experiences during your athletic career that influenced you deeply including the Speed Skating World Sprint Championships in Inzell, Germany in 1971, the Team Pursuit at the Pan American Games in Cali, Colombia in 1971 and the Olympics in Munich in 1972. Talk about how these experiences helped you develop a management style with the young 7- Eleven team.

Jim: The biggest influence I had was when I was speed skating. It was my first trip to Europe when I was eighteen, going to Germany for speed skating. When I got there, I was by myself. I was not with the US team. But the Dutch team was there… guys and girls my age. It was the way they functioned. They all came out to the ring together. They all warmed up together. They did the work outs together. And they cheered each other when they raced.

But then off the ice, they would all sit at the same table and eat together. They watched videos of themselves training and racing. And I thought wow, I have never done that before! And they were all very good. And, I thought they were good because of that. And they had a coach and a trainer and people there to help them. And that was fascinating to me. I had never seen that before.

I had a coach, but I did not have a structure with an organization that operated in a way that tried to help people perform better. When they invited me on the bus ride, to go from Inzell, Germany to Innsbruck, Austria for a competition, and I rode on the bus with them, it was just an eye opener for me.

So, that was the first example of an organized sports team that I experienced. And I never forgot about it. And I used it as a benchmark for the way I wanted to do things once I got into the sports management space.

Matt: Tell me a story about Eric Heiden and what he meant to the initial success of the 7–Eleven team?

Jim: Without Eric’s help to secure 7–Eleven as a sponsor, it would have never happened. It may have happened, but not with 7–Eleven. His relationship with me – we are family. So, it came from the speed skating background. I was first introduced to Eric as a racer, he raced with me as a young kid. Sometimes I could beat him then. After that, he was moving into the very high level. And his parents needed someone to get over there and make sure he was OK, So, they knew me, so they suggested I try this….be the manager. That’s when I met Eric, and I got to manage the speed skating team.

We traveled together, we raced together and trained together. And Eric liked what I did, so he trusted me ‘cause I didn’t screw anything up for him. And he went on to win his five gold medals. After that, I was thinking about a cycling team. But, I knew I couldn’t do it alone, I needed help.

Eric Heiden and Bob Roll.

First, I needed someone else that had a foot inside a door. So, Eric was the most likely candidate that I knew who could help us do that. And he agreed to do it. So, his impact on the creation of the team was the most important thing that happened. After that, when he made the commitment to race with us, I think for him personally it became a mission and a great influence in his athletic career. If he talks about his five gold medals, it’s probably not as much as he talks about cycling. He really enjoyed his professional years in cycling. And those years were beneficial to us as an organization… Obviously because of having him around and his leadership. When you have people who are really successful in another sport, we always had people coming to the team who would ask “ Oh Shit, is that Eric Heiden training with us today?” Yeah, he is on the team! Especially for the European guys. Wow, Eric Heiden!

Ron Kiefel.

Matt: I couldn’t help but think that Ron Kiefel and Davis Phinney were the original Mark Cavendish and Mark Renshaw. Tell me a story about Ron and Davis and how successful they were as a sprinting duo.

Jim: Certainly, in the U.S. races there was not a better combo that existed. There were other sprinters, and there were other competitors like Ron who could race in that capacity he could. He was very versatile. Even more versatile than Davis. But Ron was the guy who committed to making Davis successful by choice. Without Ron Keifel at Davis Phinney’s side, his career would have been a lot different. He would have still been successful because he was a competitor also, but a partner like Ron is a once in a lifetime experience and even hard to find today’s in modern cycling. To find that sort of combo in any degree of longevity or success is impossible. You just mentioned Cavendish and Renshaw, that’s not going to happen next year. So, that’s over. But Ron and Davis stuck it out for a long time together.

Davis Phinney.

Matt: I have spoken to Bob Roll about the development of 7–Eleven’s reputation in Europe. He was very proud of the fact that 7–Eleven were the pioneers for other American riders. Tell me at what moment did you realize that the European peloton accepted the 7–Eleven team. What changed for you, the organization and the team when that happened?

Jim: The first shock wave that hit Europe was when Ron won Trofeo Laigueglia in 1985. It was a shock from the standpoint that they didn’t know who in the hell he was, or who we were. They had never really seen and American team in the peloton before. They had seen American athletes before but on a very limited basis with LeMond and Boyer and a little bit with George Mount and Mike Neel. But beyond that, they hadn’t seen anybody.

When we came to the Giro, and Ron did it again and won a stage in Perugia against Moser and Gerrie Knetemann, the Europeans said this is a real team and they gave us a lot of kudos for that. And as an organization, it now gave us the ability to start looking on a broader scale in terms of OK, we are in the Tour of Italy, what’s next? We seemed to figure this out pretty quick, we won two stages – Andy was twentieth, Eric Heiden won the Intergiro (The Intergiro was a competition as a temporal classification based on midway points on every stage. The overall leader in this competition was awarded a blue jersey to wear on the following day’s stage.)

Now what do we do? Oh it’s the next big race; this thing called the Tour de France. OK, so how do we get into the Tour de France? We would have not got an opportunity to present ourselves to the Tour organization had we not had success at the Giro. They would not have taken us seriously. Directly after the Giro, we were given an audience with the Tour Director. And that already in itself was a huge and unprecedented event.

Matt: Here is a passage I found interesting in the book: “Throughout the rest of his life, Ochowicz’s career would cross back and forth between these two worlds: the isolated American sporting culture he knew and grew up with, and the broader European tradition that could appreciate and fertilize his dreams. In time, he and his athletes would help bridge and equalize these disparate worlds.” Tell me a little more about this quote…

Jim: Bridging these two worlds is still a challenge today. It was a lot more separated then in terms of the popularity of cycling here as opposed to Europe and speed skating as well. Speed skating on a lesser scale, because speed skating always got a huge amount of publicity and support around the Olympics, since speed skaters always delivered the bulk of the medals for the U.S. So, they always caught up and fell behind.

But cycling really never had that momentum to jump into the Olympic scene and then fall back. Because cycling is not about the Olympic games. It’s more about the Tour de France, the Giro and the Classics. Having a team now that could compete in these events provided a venue for an audience back here to follow. Even in those days, we didn’t have the Internet or cell phones, but there was a way to communicate that back here some how. 7–Eleven used their powerful ability to publicize themselves and the things they do through a network of pubic relation tools that were available at the time. They were as enthusiastic about what we were doing in Europe, as they were doing in their stores at any time.

They used their powerful mechanism to promote our successes in the American market place. At that time, still not something that was traditionally done here or by anybody else. 7–Eleven figured it out early that this was something pretty cool that we were doing. They were proud of the fact that we were doing something unique, understood it was unique and pushed the public relations effort around it. They did this by creating events at their store and with their employees. Also the ability for us to do the Tour de France, and bring these semi rock stars back to America and do the Coors Classic. People could go live and see them on course, and get autographs, talk to them, get interviews. And then the PR machine from 7 – Eleven just kept promoting that.

The month of August for us became a whole season of educating the public about cycling and about the 7-Eleven team. When I was in Colorado this summer for the USA Pro Cycling Challenge everyone talked about the Coors Classic, because that is what brought them into cycling to begin with.

Matt: What do you think is the legacy of the 7 – Eleven team?

Jim: Wow, what a great legacy. A group of men and women that pioneered the sport of cycling far before it was popular to do so and with no other ambition or personal gains of any kind except to enjoy the sport of cycling and wanting to race bikes. There were no other misgivings about financial rewards or popularity. It was the fact that they loved to race bikes and they all acted and did their best to promote that. The fact that the group as a whole unified in a family setting that still exists today 30 years later without any real effort on anybody’s part other than everyone still likes each other. Everyone still respects each other, everyone still remembers what they did together as a group. I think that is pretty unique.

• Thanks to Jim for talk with us, and to VeloPress’ Ted Costantino
(Vice President and Publisher) and Dave Trendler
(Marketing and Publicity Manager) for helping set this up.

• Copies of the new book “Team 7-Eleven
How an Unsung Band of American Cyclists Took on the World-and Won” by Geoff Drake with Jim Ochowicz
are available now at the Velopress Website here.

• Read more of Matt’s interviews at his website: www.veloprints.com

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