Assembling the picture of what happened to cycling in the eighties is like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. For most of the story you have to read around the subject. Geoff Drake’s Team 7-Eleven: How An Unsung Band Of American Cyclists Took On The World – And Won (VeloPress, 2011, 320 pages) is an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle. Fundamentally flawed, but important nonetheless.
The story Drake tells in Team 7-Eleven splits neatly into two parts, each accounting for half the book: one, the domestic story and two, the international. The domestic story tells the genesis of the 7-Eleven team, the blades-and-bikes culture Jim Ochowicz and Eric Heiden sprang from, and the role played in U.S. cycling by the Southland Corporation – owners of the 7-Eleven chain of convenience stores – and the role played by a guy called George Taylor.
Taylor was a European sports agent who’d settled in America. His agency – Sports Mondial – had been behind bringing Pelé north of the border in an attempt to show Americans that football could also be played with the foot, and didn’t need all that body-armour and shoulder-charging of its American incarnation. Being Dutch,Taylor knew something about speed skating and he became interested in Eric Heiden. Being Dutch, Taylor also knew a little bit about Heiden’s new sport: cycling.
Heiden had won five speed skating gold medals at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics of 1980. And then hung up his blades. He wanted to become a doctor. He took to the bike to keep up his fitness. There was at this time a strong bike-and-blades culture in America, speed skaters and skiers mixing it up with cyclists. The two sports are complementary, using similar muscle groups. And their seasons are at opposite ends of the calendar.
In the 1970s Sheila Young had crossed over from speed skating to cycling. Between 1972 and 1982 she won six medals at different cycling World Championships, three of them Gold, the last in Leicester, the same meet as Beppe Saronni’s Goodwood rifle shot. And there was Young’s rival, Sue Novara, also a star of the ice who became a multiple World Champion cyclist. And then there was Connie Carpenter, who had represented the US in the Olympics at speed skating and then became an Olympic champion on the bike. Oh yeah, there was also Greg LeMond, skier turned cyclist. Some men made the transition too.
Chief among the men was Eric Heiden, the darling of speed skating at the start of the eighties. Five gold medals in one Olympiad, that’s some going. Heiden could have become another Jean-Claude Killy and that – probably – was part of what attracted George Taylor, sports agent, to him. But Heiden was a sports agent’s nightmare, the guy who turned down more deals than he signed. Heiden, though, was of those guys who liked to put as much into a sport as he got out of it. Knowing this Taylor hatched an idea based on Heiden’s new sport, cycling: put a deal in front of him that Heiden couldn’t turn down, because it would be helping the sport of cycling as much as putting money in his own bank account. Taylor wanted to build a cycling team around the speed skating champion.
Jim Ochowicz also wanted to build a cycling team around Eric Heiden. The husband of Sheila Young, Och – sounds like “coach” without the “c” – was also from the blades-and-bikes culture, his own modest successes overshadowed by those of his wife. But Ochowicz’s athletic shortcomings were the key to the next stage of his life. He was the guy who analysed what he was doing, what others were doing, and drew the important lessons. And was happy to pass them on to others.
Ochowicz knew athletes. Taylor knew finance. Theirs was a marriage made in heaven. And the Dallas-based Southland Corporation was the altar at which they were wed. In late 1980 Southland had been encouraged to put $3 million dollars behind building a vélodrome for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. For another million they became the official convenience store of the Games. So Taylor cold-called Southland in an attempt to hit them up for the money needed to put a cycling team on the road. After hearing Taylor’s spiel and sleeping on it for a few months, Southland agreed to pony up $250,000. Ochowicz had already landed a deal with Schwinn and suddenly Eric Heiden was heading an American cycling team.
Team 7-Eleven is one of those books that hints at stories untold and one untold story is who wore the trousers in the marriage of George Taylor and Jim Ochowicz. We are told that Taylor started the 7-Eleven women’s team, which featured darlings of the day Rebecca Twigg and Inga Thompson, against the wishes of Ochowicz. And that Taylor had convinced Southland to build a second vélodrome, this time in Colorado Springs, as well as paying to bring the 1986 World Championships there. (Conveniently, the United States Olympic Committee were based in Colorado Springs. With a man like Taylor onboard, the UCI wouldn’t have needed a mortgage to build Aigle.) Taylor, Drake says, was only interested in the domestic market. But Ochowicz saw the world beyond America’s shores. America was just a stepping stone toward those distant lands. Taylor exits the story, quietly slipping off Drake’s stage, right at the moment that Ochowicz convinces Southland to put their financial might behind 7-Eleven’s first foray into Europe. This is, after all, Och’s story. Not Taylor’s.
In the four years that Taylor and Ochowicz had a common objective, they achieved most of their aims with the exception of winning America’s biggest stage race – the Coors Classic. The 7-Elevens became the biggest fish in the domestic pond. And when it came to the goal toward which the Southland Corporation had for four years been building – the Los Angeles Olympic Games – 7-Eleven riders took up nine of the 23 saddles in the U.S. Olympic cycling squad. Taylor had promised the Southland Corporation the opportunity to own American cycling. By the time the Games rolled around, that certainly seemed to have come true.
One of the oft-told tales about Southland’s sponsorship of the Olympic vélodrome is that, when they were asked to put their financial muscle behind the facility, they had to look up the word vélodrome in a dictionary. You have to wonder if anyone had bothered to tell them the last time an American cyclist had picked up a medal in the Olympics: it was 1912. If Southland’s funding of the Olympic vélodrome was an attempt to link the corporation to American Olympic success, in 1980 it certainly didn’t look like they’d picked the right sport.
But, in the background, politics was playing its part in U.S. cycling’s story. In 1979, Russia invaded Afghanistan and the Americans retaliated not just by funding the mujahideen but also by boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Four years later the bear bit back and – not unexpectedly – the Russians, along with their aligned Soviet satellites, boycotted the Los Angeles Games. The Cold War’s five-ring circus was once again without one of its major acts. And, when it came to amateur cycling in the eighties, the Soviets were king of the ring. How LA 84 would have worked out had they been there, no one will ever know. But the way it did work out was an American dream: 9 of the available 24 cycling medals went to America. Seventy-two years of drought and then they were being showered with shrapnel.
For Ochowicz the dream was even more sweet – six of his riders picked up medals in five events: Mark Gorski (gold in the individual sprint), Rebecca Twigg (silver in the women’s road race), Leonard Nitz (silver in the team pursuit, bronze in the individual pursuit) and Davis Phinney, Ron Kiefel and Andy Weaver (bronze in the team time trial). Och had worked hard to get as many 7-Eleven riders into the U.S. cycling squad as he could, and had diligently sought out riders like Nitz and Gorski because of their Olympic potential. He had a right to feel he’d played a part in Team America’s success. And this is a part of the 7-Eleven story that Team 7-Eleven rightly plays up.
However. I’ve already told you that this is a book of tales told and tales untold. If you know anything about the tainted history of this sport you probably know about the tale to be told from LA 84. Just a few months after the Games ended, the whole U.S. cycling squad admitted to having been encouraged to blood dope in preparation for the Games. Seven members of the squad confessed to having succumbed to the pressure and allowed themselves to be transfused with other people’s blood before their events. 7-Eleven’s Rebecca Twigg and Leonard Nitz were among the seven. Doping fiend that I am, I was looking forward to how Drake would handle the scandal.
“Almost as memorable as the Games themselves was the aftermath.” That’s how Drake begins his description of what happened after the Games were over. Memorable would be one way of describing the blood-doping scandal. Had it happened in any other country, it would have been described as a state-sponsored doping programme. When, also in 1984, Sandro Donati revealed CONI’s funding of Francesco Conconi to blood dope Italian athletes this is exactly how it was described in Italy.
But the memory being recalled by Drake is not the blood-doping scandal. Rather it is the lavishness with which the Southland Corporation celebrated the successes of Team America. The Love Boat‘s cruise ship was rented and docked in Long Beach. Bob Hope did a turn for the assembled guests. “Ochowicz, flush from his recent success, stayed for two days with his wife Sheila, and their growing family.”
Of the blood-doping scandal, Drake has nothing to say. Not a word, not a whisper. The blood has been airbrushed from the walls of 7-Eleven’s Hall of Fame. It’s important to point out that Jim Ochowicz has never been accused of having any hand, act, or part in the U.S. cycling team’s blood doping at those Games. Eddie Borysewicz took the fall for that. It would have been interesting to know what Och knew and when he knew it, and how he managed to stop Southland from pulling their funding once the scandal broke. But while Och is credited with glory in the Games, not even a hint of the shame that came with them is allowed detract from the story being sold here. This is his story, not history.
A cycling book that’s coy on the subject of doping? Depressing but hardly unusual. But that story highlights Team 7-Eleven‘s greatest flaw: the book is a trumpet-blowing, chest-thumping, jingoistic exercise in hagiography that dodges the hard bits and air-brushes a lot of history out of the picture. What bothers me here isn’t that Drake’s effort dodges the bullet on doping. If so, I might have wanted to know why Sean Yates’ 1989 positives didn’t make the story. Instead, what bothers me is that, if Drake is going to deep-six something you know about, what’s he doing with the parts of the story you don’t know about? This is a trust issue, not a doping issue. Once an author has lost your trust, that’s pretty much the end of the story.
Even if you take the issue of doping off the table, Team 7-Eleven is not a warts and all story, though Drake does take time to dwell on some of 7-Eleven’s beauty spots. The picture of the riders Drake paints is one of a bunch of frat boys who partied hearty (but never, in Drake’s picture, too hearty). A bunch of guys who could be professional one moment and a bunch of clowns the next. For Drake, referencing those human failings demonstrates his objectivity. For me, that’s a bunch of hooey, for those few failings that Drake does acknowledge are part and parcel of why people like me actually liked 7-Eleven. Those beauty-spots are essential to the story.
When it comes to documenting 7-Eleven’s European years – for most people outside of America the reason they’ll want to read Team 7-Eleven – Drake focusses on their Tour de France and Giro d’Italia stage wins and their overall victory at the 1988 Giro. Of other races the 7-Elevens participated in there is scant information. Of Dag Otto Lauritzen’s third-place in 1989′s Ronde van Vlandereen, Drake has nothing to say. Ditto Sean Yates’ second in 1989′s Gent-Wevelgem (Ron Kiefel’s third the previous year gets about a dozen words). Steve Bauer’s second-place at Paris-Roubaix in 1990 is passed over in a sentence. Three pages are given over to Ron Kiefel’s 1985 victory at the Trofeo Laigueglia, a pre-season Italian leg-loosener Drake somewhat understately notes is “not on a par with such heralded one-day races as Milan-San Remo or Paris-Roubaix.”
Had Drake included the team’s palmarès at the end of the book the reason for these omissions might have been obvious (and he might have realised that Davis Phinney’s 1988 success at the Coors Classic was not, as he claims, the team’s first taste of overall victory in America’s biggest stage race – Raúl Alcalá had won the race the year before wearing a 7-Eleven jersey). But, while there is the space to list the team’s roster for each year (men and women, despite the book only being about the men), a where-are-they-now section for some of the riders, and thirteen pages of endnotes demonstrating just how impeccably-researched the book is (VeloNews and Bicycling‘s archives are referenced a lot), there’s no room for a listing of 7-Eleven’s victories. This being a book about “how an unsung band of American cyclists took on the world – and won” this must surely count as an oversight. So let’s try and remedy that.
|7-Eleven (1985-1990): Palmarès|
|Tour de France||1986 – 1 stage (Davis Phinney); 1987 – 3 stages (Davis Phinney, Dag Otto Lauritzen, Jeff Pierce) + white jersey (Raúl Alcalá);|
|Giro d’Italia||1985 – 2 stages (Ron Kiefel, Andy Hampsten) + InterGiro competition (Eric Heiden); 1988 – overall + 2 stages + KOM (all Andy Hampsten)|
|Vuelta a España|
|Ronde van Vlaanderen|
|Giro di Lombardia|
|Main Stage Races|
|Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré||1990 – 1 stage (Ron Kiefel)|
|Paris-Nice||1988 – 1 stage (Andy Hampsten)|
|Quatre Jours de Dunkerque|
|Tour de Romandie||1988 – 2 stages (Bob Roll, Davis Phinney); 1989 – 1 stage (Jens Veggerby)|
|Tour de Suisse||1987 – overall (Andy Hampsten); 1990 – 1 stage (Andy Hampsten)|
|Main One Day Races|
|ClásicaSan Sebastián||1989 – Gerhard Zadrobilek|
|GP des Nations|
|Other Stage Races|
|Coors Classic||1985 – 2 stages (Ron Kiefel, Bob Roll) + points jersey (Davis Phinney); 1986 – 5 stages (Ron Kiefel (2), Davis Phinney (3)) + points jersey (Davis Phinney); 1987 – overall (Raúl Alcalá) + six stages (Raúl Alcalá (3), Andy Hampsten (2), Davis Phinney) + points jersey (Davis Phinney); 1988 – overall (Davis Phinney) + 3 stages (Davis Phinney, Jeff Pierce (2))|
|Etoile de Bessèges||1990 – 1 stage (Scott McKinley)|
|Giro di Trentino||1987 – 1 stage (Raúl Alcalá)|
|Post Danmark Rundt||1988 – 1 stage (Kim Eriksen)|
|Ronde van België||1989 – overall + 2 stages (all Sean Yates)|
|Ronde van Nederland||1989 – 1 stage (Sean Yates)|
|Tour de l’Avenir||1986 – 1 stage (Alexi Grewal)|
|Tour de Trump||1989 – overall (Dag Otto Lauritzen) + 3 stages (Davis Phinney (2), Ron Kiefel)|
|Vuelta Ciclista al País Vasco||1989 – 2 stages (Andy Hampsten, Jeff Pierce); 1990 – 1 stage (Brian Walton)|
|Other One Day Races|
|Giro di Toscana||1988 – Ron Kiefel|
|GP Eddy Merckx||1989 – Sean Yates|
|Rund um den Henninger Turm||1987 – Dag Otto Lauritzen|
|Schwabenbrau Cup/Stuttgart||1989 – Andy Hampsten|
|Subida a Urkiola||1989 – Andy Hapsten; 1990 – Andy Hampsten|
|Trofeo-Laigueglia||1985 – Ron Kiefel|
Source: various (tweet me, @fmk_RoI, if you spot any errors or omissions)
I’m not trying to do down 7-Eleven by pointing to the paucity of their major victories – I was a fan of the team then and still count myself a fan today. Sometimes important victories taste sweeter for being few and far between. And sometimes the stories of races lost are far more entertaining than the stories of races won. For instance, there’s a funny story about the 1985 Milan-Sanremo, 7-Eleven’s first taste of a real Classic (we didn’t come to calling it a Monument until later, when inflation set it and semi- and demi-Classics needed to be put in their place). You can find that story in Davis Phinney’s book; for some reason Drake doesn’t even mention the team’s presence at the race, even though it was the culmination of their first, six-week, visit to Europe in 1985 and must have played a role in their Giro d’Italia invite.
So why would you want read this hagiography of the team that Jim Ochowicz built, the team that Drake asininely claims single-handedly changed the cycling world and refashioned in their own image? You should read it if you want to piece together the history of the domestic American racing scene. You should read it if you want to piece together the story of eighties cycling. You should read it if – like me – you were a fan of the Slurpees. Just don’t read Team 7-Eleven expecting to find objectivity or perspective. Don’t read it expecting to be told the whole story. Don’t read it expecting to be told what really happened. And, whatever you do, don’t read it and buy the lie being peddled by Drake, the lie that Jim Ochowicz saved cycling on two continents. He didn’t.
* * * * *
Team 7-Eleven: How An Unsung Band Of American Cyclists Took On The World – And Won, by Geoff Drake, with Jim Ochowicz, forewords by Eric Heiden and Eddy Merckx is published VeloPress (2011, 320 pages).
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