With Geoff Drake’s biography of the team that Jim Ochowicz built just released, let’s don our rose-tinted Oakleys for the first of a four-part series that tries to put some truth into the story of the “unsung band of American cyclists who took on the world – and won.”
Friday, July 4, 1986. Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris, France. 7-Eleven rider Alex Stieda was the first rider to set off on the prologue of the 1986 Tour de France. A 4.6 kilometre contre la montre. Stieda rode them it in five minutes and 33 seconds. Until another rider bettered that time, the Canadian was the virtual leader of the Tour de France, wearing an imaginary maillot jaune. It took more than a hour for someone to unseat him. That hour, that was just the starters in what was to prove to be a very important Tour for North American cycling.
The 7-Elevens were one of the last teams to be invited to the 1986 Tour, Félix Lévitan keeping them on tenterhooks until June before finally dealing them a wild card and cashing their $35,000 cheque for the entry fee. Given the losses he’d incurred on the 1983 Tour of America and the way he’d buried them by siphoning off cash from the US television rights for the Tour, you have to wonder what his game was. More American riders meant more American TV money. Money the Société du Tour de France coveted. But Lévitan was like that.
There’s a story about an American team that Lévitan courted to ride the Tour in 1981. Mike Neel was to be their directeur sportif and Mike Fraysse their general manager. RTL, the French TV company, were to be their sponsors. But then, for some inexplicable reason, Lévitan just dropped the idea at the last minute. Maybe Cyrille Guimard selecting Jock Boyer for Renault’s 1981 Tour squad was enough, especially when the Société du Tour decided Boyer should ride in a stars and stripes jersey. That’s the kind of guy Lévitan was. A guy who played by his own rules and didn’t feel the need to explain himself. To anyone.
7-Eleven were the last of 21 ten-man teams chosen for that Tour – the most riders the Tour has ever had – and Alex Stieda got the honour of wearing the 210 dossard. And of being the first rider to roll down the start ramp of the 1986 grande boucle. Stieda’s riding earned him the right to wear that virtual maillot jaune for an hour or more before someone finally lifted it off his shoulders.
For most riders in their first Tour, even a virtual yellow jersey would be an accomplishment to cherish. But the next morning, on the first of two split-stages through the suburbs of Paris, Nanterreto Sceaux, Stieda pushed for more. At 85 kilometres, the distance to be raced was comparable to riding critériums back in the States. And, back in the U.S., the 7-Elevens were the kings of critériums. Only 20 riders had bettered Stieda’s time the day before. He was just 12 seconds off the lead. Stieda dared to dream.
Steida turned up for the stage start in a one-piece skinsuit. Skinsuits were well known for time trials, but rarely used in road stages. They usually signalled that the wearer was an idiot. Or that an exploit was in the offing. Stephen Roche wore one for an exploit in the morning part of a split-stage up the Tourmalet in the Tour the previous year. And, barely a month before that, Andy Hampsten had donned one for 7-Eleven’s début Giro d’Italia, when he won the stage to Gran Paradiso. But, if Stieda was going for an exploit, then he’d neglected to tell his teammates. Davis Phinney recalls that, as they took the line, he tried to put as much space as he could between himself and his bleach-blond teammate in the unitard.
Just over 20 kilometres into the ride, the Canuck rode off the front of the race. Just going for a piss, gonna be a bit of an effort in this skin-suit, gimme a minute and I’ll be right back with ya. Only Stieda just kept riding. He wasn’t just taking the piss out of the peloton, he was putting time into it. Three minutes at one point. Once more the Canadian was resplendent in a virtual maillot jaune. With just 17 kilometres to go a group of five riders caught up with him. In the dash for the line Stieda finished fifth of the six. Looking over his shoulder as he crossed the line, the Canuck could see the peloton stretched across the road, barrelling for the finish. So close.
Before the chasers caught him, though, Stieda had picked up 36 seconds in bonifications. When the Tour’s bean counters totted everything up, added this to that and subtracted the other, the Canadian 7-Eleven rider was found to be leading the Tour de France, eight seconds to the good. Before he could step up to the podium to collect North America’s first ever yellow jersey, Stieda had to step up to the podium to collect the white jersey as the best-placed young rider. Then step up again to collect the red jersey for leader of the catch sprints category. Then step up again to collect the polka-dot jersey of the best climber. Then step up again to collect the multi-coloured jersey for the leader of the combination category. By the time he finally stepped up to collect his yellow jersey, the guy was knackered from all the walking he’d had to do.
(Back in those days, the Tour had jerseys out the wazoo, all individually-sponsored, all feeding the monster of the Tour’s ever-expanding bottom line. It took the arrival of Jean-Marie Leblanc, after the 1988 Tour, to realise that less is more and rationalise the Tour’s wardrobe.)
In the eighties, teams didn’t have plush team buses and, between the two split-stages, the riders in the 1986 Tour rested in the gymnasium of a nearby school. Before he got to the gym, Stieda had to perform all the media duties of the leader of the Tour de France. And, with the Foreign Legion opening wide the doors of opportunity for the non-traditional cycling nations, more and more English-speaking journalists were covering the race. Guys like Rupert Guinness, David Walsh, Paul Sherwen, Sam Abt. Being English-speaking, they loved any rider who spoke English. Especially when he was wearing the yellow jersey. Stieda was a man in demand.
None of that was particularly good preparation for the team time trial that followed, 56 kilometres from Meudon to Saint Quentin. For the riders, split-stages are a bitch: start, race, stop, transfer, repeat. But for the Société du Tour, split-stages enabled them to have two départs in one day, four host towns – or, in this case, Parisian suburbs – all paying for the privilege of hosting either the start or the finish. The Tour’s bottom line was as important as, and sometimes more important than, the finish line.
That 7-Eleven hadn’t actually prepared for the TTT didn’t help the events that next unfolded. The Americans hadn’t even driven the 56 kilometre course, all they’d done was look at it on a map. That proved to be the start of their undoing. Just 18 kilometres into the ride, Davis Phinney led them round a downhill bend, clocking close to 70 kilos an hour, only to find a traffic island splitting the road. Phinney made it past the obstacle safely, as did the first few riders behind him. Eric Heiden fluffed it and went down. In attempting to avoid him, several 7-Elevens either went down or scraped their tyres against the kerb and flatted.
Oblivious to the carnage behind, Doug Shapiro was pulling hard at the front as the road kicked up. Behind him the rest of the 7-Elevens were trying to work out whether they should race on or wait for their teammates behind. In the era before race radios they didn’t have a directeur sportif whispering in their ear telling them what to do (‘Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in …’). And, with the 7-Eleven team car still back down the road untangling bodies and bikes and swapping out wheels, their directeur sportif, Mike Neel, wasn’t able to drive up beside them and tell them what to do.
That was when the arguing began. Stay! Go! Stay! Go! Egalitarianism is great in theory, but too often awful in practice. There’s no time in a team time trial to discuss the issues and put the motion to a vote. Whether the 7-Elevens finally agreed to stay or they just argued the issue long enough for the riders behind to catch up is moot. All that really matters is that, eventually, they were all together and back into flying formation.
Then, at the front of the pace line, Alexi Grewal and Doug Shapiro got into a shouting match over who was wrongly positioned to ride the cross-wind blowing at them. Echelons weren’t big in US critérium racing and Shapiro – who’d ridden the Tour the previous year as part of the Kwantum squad – thought he knew more about them than Grewal did. Grewal, who’d ridden the previous season with Panasonic, begged to differ. Still blasting along at nigh on 50 kilometres an hour, Shapiro sought to settle the argument by pulling his bidon from its cage and launching it at Grewal’s head.
It was around that time that Stieda remembered that he’d forgotten to eat. Or his body remembered it for him. The dreaded fringale had caught up with him. With still 20 klicks to go the leader of the Tour de France couldn’t hold the wheel of the team-mate in front of him. The 7-Elevens slowed for him. Stieda still couldn’t hold the wheel in front. A decision had to be made: jettison the anchor or risk having the whole team go down with the ship. The big clock was tick-tick-tocking and the 7-Elevens were in danger of being caught by the cut off. Laurent Fignon’s Système U had scorched the course and there was now a distinct possibility of the 7-Elevens being sent home in disgrace with not even 150 of the race’s 4,000 kilometres run.
Mike Neel gave the order: abandon the passenger. The yellow jersey was dropped, with Chris Carmichael and Jeff Pierce sent back to nurse him to the line. Three hours after having donned that yellow jersey Stieda was fighting to beat the cut-off time. He won but lost four of his five jerseys, retaining only the polka-dots. Having done so much to earn the respect of the Continental pros, the 7-Elevens had just played true to the stereotype of a bunch of know-nothing amateurs, a danger to themselves as much as to the riders around them. Only one team finished slower than them in the TTT – Café de Colombia. Even three years on from their first appearance at the Tour, the Colombians were still the peloton‘s whipping boys. On the upside, the Colombians had lost four riders that day to the cut off, other teams another eight. Despite their ineptitude, all the 7-Elevens made it across the finish line in time (thirty seconds in time, in Stieda’s case).
Sam Abt, the New York Times‘ American in Paris, went up to Davis Phinney after the time trial and asked the obvious question: “Have you ever ridden a team time trial before?” Phinney got prissy with him: “I did win a medal in the Olympics in this event.” But Phinney then – and now – acknowledged the validity of Abt’s question. The 7-Elevens had fucked up right royally. In the space of just three hours they’d gone from heroes to zeroes. And, to rub salt into the wound, they’d done it all on live TV.
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It was a chastened 7-Eleven team that took to the road the next day as the Tour headed north toward Belgium, crossing the Somme in a long, flat 214 kilo haul up to Liévian, near Lille. Paris was finally behind them and the real racing would soon begin. With about a third of the stage still to run, Phinney was dawdling near the back of the pack when a Swiss rider, Robert Dill-Bundi (Malvor), came riding up the outside of the peloton and past Phinney. Phinney decided to latch onto his wheel for a free ride toward the front of the densely packed peloton.
But when Dill-Bundi got to the front he just kept riding. The road had just narrowed and it was the perfect place to launch an attack. Phinney hardly even thought about it and kept following the wheel in front. Another ten riders latched onto them. There was some class in the break. Charly Mottet and his Système U team-mate Laurent Biondi, for instance. And there was Dag-Otto Lauritzen (Peugeot) and Henk Boeve (PDM). Even the unheralded Dill-Bundi had been an Olympic pursuit champion. There was class enough to build the break and maybe – just maybe – stay away. In ten kilometres the dozen escapees built up a two-minute lead.
Having been cartoonish the day before, 7-Eleven now had a man up the road animating the race. The day before the world had witnessed two sides of 7-Eleven, the good and the bad. What the hell were they going to deliver next, the ugly? Not with Phinney they weren’t. Phinney oozed cool. Phinney oozed charm. Phinney oozed sexiness. Oh yeah, and Phinney had a sprint. He didn’t have the beating of Eric Vanderaerden or Sean Kelly in him, for sure, but he was better than most. And better than anyone in that break.
Behind them, the peloton was finally awakening from its slumber and had decided they’d given the break enough rope. Time to hang em. With 25 kilometres to go the lead was down to 90 seconds. La Vie Claire were driving the chase. Système U’s Thierry Marie held the maillot jaune and looked set on trying to pass it to Mottet. Bernard Tapie’s boys decided to throw a spanner in Cyrille Guimard’s works. Only for a puncture to see them hitting the brakes and the chase to briefly lose its momentum. It was the breathing space the escapees needed.
7-Eleven weren’t exactly an unknown quantity in the peloton by now. This was their second season of mixing it up with the big boys. In their first they’d bagged some early-season low-hanging fruit and won a couple of stages in the Giro. They’d skipped the 1986 Giro in favour of the Vuelta a España but then skipped out of that before the start after the U.S. bombed Libya and Americans were advised to get their asses out of Dodge. Even if Phinney’s colleagues in that break didn’t know him by reputation, they only had to look at his thighs to know he could sprint. Teka’s Federico Echave – a Spaniard not known for his sprinting abilities – decided to screw this for a game of cowboys, he’d take his chances on his own. He fucked off up the road. And the rest of the break just let him ride away. As they do. That’s when Phinney realised that he was, in his own words, racing to be first loser.
Ten kilos out the break still had forty-nine seconds on the pack behind but, once they hit the outskirts of Liévian, geography favoured the few over the many. It’s easier for a small group to ride through city streets than it is for a two-hundred man peloton. The break made it to the kite and, five hundred metres out, they were in line, each hugging the wheel in front (except, obviously, for the dumb schmuck who’d drawn the short straw of leading the line). With 250 metres to go, Phinney went for it. There’s glory even in being the first loser. The American pulled clear. A bike length. Two bike lengths. Three bike lengths. In the bag, baby. Time to straighten the jersey and pose for the cameras. Then a rider came steaming up on his right. Boeve. Wakey wakey Davis. Phinney woke up. Dug in. Beat Boeve, barely. First loser. Way to go.
VeloNews‘s John Wilcockson was in the scrum of journalists that descended on Phinney. They exchanged words:
“Davis, that was incredible!”
“Yeah, I won the sprint. But I still came second.”
“What do you mean second, you won!”
“What about the Spanish guy?”
“The Spanish guy? He punctured miles ago!”
“I can’t believe it! I won?”
“Davis, you’ve won the stage! You won!”
“I can’t believe it! I won!”
Twenty kilometres out from the finish Echave had punctured and the break had sped past without noticing him as he stood with the crowds at the roadside, wheel in hand waiting for some service. Many a time a rider has celebrated as he crossed the line, thinking he’s won, only to have to be told that nope, he’d been racing for second or worse. The days when you think you’re racing for second and end up winning are rare things.
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For the 7-Elevens, the rest of that 1986 Tour was a bit meh. One day, Doug Shapiro showed what a bunch of clowns the 7-Elevens could be by looking into the camera of a moto-mounted TV crew and riding into the back-wheel of the rider in front him and taking him down. That man was PDM’s Pedro Delgado and he broke his collarbone in that chute. Later in the race, another TV camera crew were spat upon by Alexi Grewal, who clearly hated the things at least as much as Laurent Fignon did.
On stage seven, Ron Kiefel got away in a break that included Miguel Induráin (Reynolds), Paul Kimmage (RMO) and Éric Caritoux (Fagor) but was nosed out by Ludo Peeters (Kwantum) in the sprint for the line. Alex Stieda managed a top ten finish the next day. But as the race progressed La Vie Claire’s North American trio of Steve Bauer, Andy Hampsten and Greg LeMond edged the 7-Elevens into the shade in U.S. coverage of the race.
On stage 12 Doug Shapiro and Chris Carmichael abandoned, something they ate not agreeing with them. On stage 15 Davis Phinney crashed out of the race; on stage 17 Alexi Grewal left the race; on stage 18 it was Eric Heiden who was going home in an ambulance. Increasingly, as the race progressed and reality dawned, 7-Eleven were just racing to keep up. They had a lot of learning yet to do.
But they learned. And as they learned they earned respect. There’s a story Alex Stieda told Winning magazine’s Maynard Hershon about that 1986 Tour. They were in the mountains and he was having coffee one morning before the stage started, one of a group of riders preparing themselves for the day ahead. One of the other riders was Gerrie Knetemann. Eleven times a man of the Tour. A giant of the road. “As we drank our coffee,” Stieda told Hershon, “it hit me suddenly: we’re just getting ready to go to work. Like any guys getting ready to go in and punch the clock.”
And then Knet started explaining the plan for the day ahead. How much time they were going to lose on the first climb and how much they’d pull back on the descent. Then the same again for the next climb. And on through the rest of the stage until they hit Alpe d’Huez, Knet carefully explaining precisely how much time they could afford to lose in order to make the cut-off. And right then, right there, Stieda knew it: he’d arrived. He was one of the guys. “I thought, wow, cool, I’m in on it, he’s giving me the scoop, cause he knows these climbs and this is it. This is real.”
In that Tour, 210 riders started. Only 132 of them survived the four Sundays and one rest day and made it back toParis. With 7-Eleven losing five riders, that put them in the same class as PDM, Panasonic, Lotto and Postobón. And better than teams like Malvor, Gis and Café de Colombia. All told, nothing to be ashamed of.
That the 7-Elevens failed to shine after the first three days of the race, no one really cared. They’d done their party piece and now it was time for the main feature. Because what was probably the best Tour de France ever was really kicking off: Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond’s very uncivil war. Two years after Marianne Martin had stood on the top step of the podium in Paris and listened as the American national anthem rang out on the Champs-Elysées, celebrating her Tour Féminin win, an American man discovered just how she felt. And then some. Just five years after Jock Boyer had been the first American to ride the Tour, the American invaders had won the big buckle for Uncle Sam. The old order was changing.
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If you weren’t there in the eighties and don’t understand how people like me fell in love with 7-Eleven, that 1986 Tour just about sums up the whole story. 7-Eleven were fun. They were guys who could get knocked down, pick themselves up again and come back for more. Not because they were punch-drunk losers who didn’t know when they were beat. But because they knew that that’s how cycling worked: you lose more than you win, and – if you can learn from losing – you’ll win more.
The 7-Elevens had a touch of style but could still be a bunch of clowns. The 7-Elevens were human. The 7-Elevens were guys you could identify with. You could dream of being Bernard Hinault or Sean Kelly or Greg LeMond. But you could imagine yourself being Davis Phinney or Andy Hampsten. Sometimes, ordinary heroes are better than super heroes.
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Sources: 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 (VeloPress, 2011, 320 pages). Also: The Happiness of Pursuit, by Davis Phinney, with Austin Murphy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, 227 pages); Half-Wheel Hell & Other Cycling Stories, by Maynard Hershon (VeloNews Books, 1994, 132 pages); and Slaying The Badger: LeMond, Hinault And The Greatest Ever Tour De France, by Richard Moore (Yellow Jersey Press, 2011, 296 pages).
Next: Back to the Eighties.