You’re not used to seeing black and white photos on Bikerumor, are you? Well, this photo speaks to the time before time, when there were only four pro cyclists in the US, and black and white photography wasn’t used just for a digital effect, but was instead common – in film. Hey, this was only 1981! You might recognize at least one or two faces in this picture, more if you’re really good. That’s Eric Heiden, the guy sporting massive thighs and winner of five gold medals in speed skating in the 1980 Winter Olympic games in Lake Placid, NY, holding the bike at left. On the right in the suit is cofounder and manager of the team, Jim Ochowicz.
Ochowicz is also coauthor, along with lead writer Geoff Drake, in a book recently released by VeloPress titled Team 7-Eleven: How an Unsung Band of American Cyclists Took on the World – and Won. Click through to hear more of this story and see if it’s worth a read…
As you read in our earlier post, VeloPress has begun issuing their books in e-book format. The copy I have is old school cloth and paper, but I trust there is no appreciable difference in format. I actually prefer ebooks now, so I can have much of my library close at hand as my taste in reading varies from hour to hour.
Anyhow, Team 7-Eleven is written chiefly by Geoff Drake with assistance from Jim Ochowicz. Och is perhaps the main thread in this whole story, and presumably provides fact and chronology assistance in this book. Drake is no slouch either, being former editor of Bicycling and VeloNews magazines, in addition to being a Cat 2 racer and triathlete himself. Drake’s writing is what you’d expect in Bicycling magazine: interesting, fast-paced storytelling. This is not high-brow literature, which is fine, but the writing is stimulating and there are frequent page breaks to allow for reading in small time-pressed chunks.
You may know Ochowicz now as the manager of Team BMC, the latest far-removed iteration of Team 7-Eleven, but back in the 1970’s he was involved in the US bicycle racing scene, notably as a member of the US Olympic team in the 1972 Munich Olympics. A brief, frustrating stint in Europe did not advance his racing career, but more rewardingly exposed him to the milieu of European cycling, worlds apart from what was going on in the US at the time. US racing was still exclusively domestic, with very few riders successfully crossing over to compete in Europe.
Och’s experience in Europe planted the far-off dream of taking a US team to compete with the pros in Europe. There were many teams in the US in the late 70’s, but sponsorship was mostly on the local or national level, and at nowhere near the funding needed to cross the Atlantic. Ochowicz happened to be involved in the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980, and was able to build a relationship with Eric Heiden. Heiden, like many speed skaters, was a dual-sport athlete, riding bicycles in the warmer months because cycling was believed to use many of the same muscles. Heiden harbored a dream of racing bicycles and after Lake Placid was ready to move away from competitive skating.
Enter 7-Eleven, a successful and growing convenience store chain. With the 1984 Summer Olympics slated for Los Angeles, the US Olympic committee brought 7-Eleven on board as a sponsor. 7-Eleven was eager to participate in any way they could, so they agreed to build a velodrome for $4 million. You might think this was not a logical pairing, and you’d be right. In fact, after they had agreed, one of the owners asked, “what is a velodrome?” An inauspicious start for what would soon be THE major US cycling team sponsor. Och and sports agent George Taylor, famous for bringing soccer star Pele to the US at the twilight of his career, managed to get 7-Eleven to up their ante by sponsoring a national cycling team of about 8 riders, for the price tag of $250,000, to start in 1981.
Och built his team around Heiden, who gave them name recognition with the sponsors, the press, and the cycling-uninitiated, and chose more skater-cyclists he knew from the upper midwest to fill the saddles around him. Heiden won a few races himself, but it was the team around him that did most of the winning. Over time the team evolved and grew, adding many names that would later become familiar to US race fans, including Davis Phinney, Alex Steida, Ron Kiefel, Frankie Andreu, Chris Carmichael, Alexi Grewal, Steve Bauer, Andy Hampsten, and the inimitable Bob Roll.
The first half of the book tells the story of Och bringing the pieces of the team together, giving a bio of each person, and then launching into stories of races and the hi-jinx that went on between events. The early team was known to be rowdy away from the public eye, enjoying the unheard-of salary of $12000 per rider to the utmost. This bonding led to great success in the saddle, and other teams would fear seeing the green, white, and red van of Team 7-Eleven show up at events.The team was built with chemistry in mind, favoring riders known to play well with the others and able to present a good public face, along with the ability to suffer for others and win. Although Ochowicz is coauthor, mentions of him aren’t universally flattering. If someone disrupted the team, they were quickly dismissed.
As more people got on board, the team eventually moved to Europe to compete, slowly but surely experiencing success. The story tells these tales as it accelerates through these final years of the team, which in total lasted 10 years before 7-Eleven’s sponsorship ended, and the book seems to blur in its rush to the end. Apparently the formation and early battles of the team were the most interesting parts of the story to the authors. Still, if you want good stories told well about the team that paved the way for later success by US teams, this is the perfect place to start. For others who may know the stories but still enjoy a good read, this is also a good book to have in your reader. For all cycling fans lusting for warm weather and racing, here’s a book to inspire spring activity.