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Voices of 7-Eleven: Interviews with Jim Ochowicz and Author Geoff Drake

Last week we reviewed the book Team 7-Eleven: How an Unsung Band of American Cyclists Took On the World -- And Won, the definitive take on the breakthrough American team of the 1980s. In the midst of Interbike, I had a chance to bust in on a team reunion at a swanky Vegas restaurant, where I was invited to sit down and chat with lead author Geoff Drake and 7-Eleven manager Jim Ochowicz (who also collaborated extensively on the book). Thankfully we were on the balcony, or my recording would be even worse than it was. But the time spent chatting was well worth it. Let's get into it...

A Team On the Move

Och_small_mediumOne of the more remarkable elements of Team 7-Eleven's rise was how quickly it took place. On arriving in Europe, their first stop was the Trofeo Laigueglia, a late winter race in Liguria, Italy. Which 7-Eleven's Ron Kiefel promptly won from a breakaway, owing to both his strength and the team's anonymity. From there they got invited to the Giro (two more stage wins), and a year later the Tour de France. Teams have long come to Europe from far off to try their luck, but there was something different about a team from the USA, with all the bigness and media potential that suggested.

PdC: How much of a role did the curiosity of the Europeans play in speeding things along?

Jim Ochowicz: Oh, real quick --

PdC: You know, today, if you start a new team and say "our goal is to get to the Tour" --

Och (can I call you Och?): Yawner --

PdC: -- you have to get in line --

Och: Big yawner. Everyone says that, right? The good thing we did was, we didn’t go in there saying we want to be in the Tour de France. We just said we wanted to go to Europe and race. We didn’t say we wanted to do the Giro, the Tour, Paris-Roubaix -- we didn’t know what Paris-Roubaix was. We had no idea. We just want to go to Europe and race. What does that mean? Let’s go and find out.

So we went there and we found out that we were not so bad, we were pretty competitive. We got to the Giro and actually won two stages -- then we started going, what’s next? What do you do after the Giro? Well, some teams go to the Tour de France. OK, let’s go see what the Tour de France is. So we explored that. We didn’t know -- we knew what the Tour de France was, but we didn’t really know, what does it mean in terms of commitment and organization, how do you get in, how do you get invited, how do you get to the start. All of those things were just a blur in front of us. But every time we made a progression, the blur stopped. We weren’t blurred about the Giro after we did the Giro. Next race, same thing. Every time we made it through an episode, we had a clear vision of what we could do with that.

Keep going...

PdC: How much did the closeness of the team and the friendships talked about in the book make a difference in the team’s ability to go over to Europe and succeed quickly?

Och: That may be the biggest success. We gave the ability for athletes to come to Europe with a lot less pressure, and we created a family for them there that allowed them to take a little steam off and integrate into an organization that understood their dilemma. I don’t live in Europe, I live in Palo Alto, right? But I have to go there for long periods of time and integrate into their culture. If I could make that easier for athletes, that’s what we tried to do, and today it’s much easier because they’ve found places they can consider to be a second home. You can imagine, though, if you’re a French rider you can do a race and go home. If you’re Davis Phinney you’re second home is in Lucca but your real home is in Boulder, your family and friends are there. But we helped with that, and I think that’s extended in today’s cycling.

Geoff Drake: These guys were very cohesive. They’d been amateurs together and raced against each other in the US, but they needed a support network. When you look at a guy like Jock Boyer or George Mount, part of the reason they came home chastised and exhausted is because it was a solitary enterprise for them. They didn’t know the language right off the bat, although they learned it -- Jock Boyer became very adept at French. When these guys went, they brought their culture with them: they ate Mexican food, they had a female soigneur, they were comforted by their own culture while they were there in a way that these individual riders weren’t. So it was absolutely critical that they went together and did their own thing.

Southland Corporation and Cycling

This story might not have gone very far had it not been for their sponsor, the Southland Corporation, a multinational entity, owners of the 7-Eleven convenience store chain, whose presence was worldwide. Southland sponsored the construction of the Velodrome at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, so they were more than a little curious when Ochowicz approached them about sponsoring a team with designs on Europe. But Ochowicz and co. got more than they bargained for. In a good way.

PdC: I’m sure we all had a sense that the 7-Eleven company was a big deal at the time, but in hindsight they were kind of a miracle sponsor, weren’t they? To come out of nowhere and get a big, enduring sponsor with an international interest, that was huge, right?

Och: We were fortunate to get together with a company that understood promotion and marketing. Our expertise was racing bicycles, and that was on a limited basis, since 1981. As we evolved, 7-Eleven grabbed on to this project with both hands, and they knew how to take a product and promote it. And we were a product, a unique product. One that didn’t really exist at that time anywhere else, and when we got to that place and time to have that credential to call ourselves the first American team in the Tour de France, they were really able to generate a tremendous amount of awareness around that.

That was a different time -- in those days you had to work your tail off in really a live capacity where you had to create marketing materials and press conferences. Not that they don’t do that today, but you could send it out on instant messaging or put a power point on line, whatever message you want to send, instant. Then it was a little slower motion but they put their PR machine behind the cycling project, and that was unique. Not just to 7-Eleven, it was unique to the sport. Even in Europe they didn’t do that. And they created an image for us in the public and a venue to educate people about cycling.

Which happens more today because of television, but in those days if they covered cycling it was on a weekend edition, not on a live broadcast, and if you were talking about the Tour de France you had to educate people -- what’s a breakaway, what’s a climb, a descent, what’s this or that. They put their PR machine behind it... I’d never seen anyone do that before. They could create an event overnight, that you’d never think would mean anything, but in the end there would be lots of people interested in what they were trying to do. Whether it was a store opening, a race in Long Island or Dallas or La Jolla, they just got their machine behind it.

Cultural Exchanges

We all know the team changed America's place in the Euro cycling world, but some of the team's other effects were more subtle. And the cultural interplay between the American interlopers and the traditional European cycling scene was a two-way street.

PdC: In the book you portray them at first as sort of happy-go-lucky, but they didn’t get too deeply into training techniques, almost like they didn’t take things seriously enough. But that must have changed somewhere along the way?

Geoff: It did. Ron Kiefel talks about being anti-Europe -- and I think at first they were deliberately contrarian. They wanted to do everything in the opposite fashion and make a statement, but that couldn’t last forever. Out of necessity that had to change, they had to get more scientific, they had to do things the way other Europeans teams did things. They had to, themselves, become more international. The original charter was that this is an all-US team. But then they added Dag-Otto Lauritzen, Jens Veggerby... they started to become more like European teams. For some of this guys this was a sad event, but those exuberant early days were past.

PdC: It does seem like there was a 7-Eleven 2.0, like it really changed a lot, the personnel and things.

Geoff: in ’86 they were still themselves. Toward the end of the team, '88, '89, those were years when they were more accepted in the peloton, and they were much more like the long-standing teams in the peloton, they had become thoroughly assimilated. They were much more scientific in their training, they ate more like the European teams. But you see their effect of the culture on the European peloton as well.

PdC: What lasting effects did the team have on cycling that you can still see today?

Och: A lot of the same organizational strategies that we implemented with 7-Eleven, in an environment where there were no examples to give you a heads-up on what that meant, are still in existence in teams today. The fact that we were an international team, the fact that we were an American team, the fact that we were competing in something that wasn’t a traditional American sport. And the way that we brought athletes and staff together in an organized fashion that created a functional group, that became very competitive and successful, was unique for an American group. Not so much for a European group, but we infiltrated their territory, and that model we created still exists today.

I think a lot of the things we did then other teams gravitated toward and modeled themselves after. Our model was not about winning, it was always about image -- what’s the image of the group, what’s it mean to be a part of that team? It has to mean something, right? And so, it was a privilege to be part of that organization, and if you ask some of the people from then, they’ll still say that today: it was an honor and a privilege to be part of that organization. It’s a piece of their life that will never go away.

PdC: How much did the 7-Eleven story take over Velo News? Back then Velo News was painstakingly devoted to covering all the regional results and stuff... this must have just taken over the cover of the magazine.

Geoff: It was an absolute paradigm shift for Velo News. They had always covered European racing, with European correspondents, and really from a European perspective for fans in the US. With 7-Eleven, now we had representatives there. We had guys that were winning races, so we had our own heroes to worship all of a sudden. When Kiefel won Laigueglia, it was like alarms went off: like, hey, US riders can do this, they can compete with the very best.

And Then There Were the Classics

Because I always have to ask about the Classics... For the record, they had some pretty fair classics riders. Kiefel was made for something like Brabantse Pijl. Bob Roll did decently at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, 17th one season. Steve Bauer came second in Paris-Roubaix in his one season in Green and Red.

PdC: What was your approach to the classics in say the mid-80s? Obviously when you had Steve Bauer later he was a big part of your plans, but what about before? Did you focus on races like the Tour of Flanders?

Och: When we finally got a season in or two, we found that our structure was also geared toward classics, and the recruitment we were interested in also played into that. Lauritzen, other riders we added, pre-Bauer even, we were building towards classics. Which I think became part of our heritage based on location. We set ourselves up in Belgium, even when we were living out of motels and not the service course, our base was in Belgium. And when you’re there you get exposed to Belgian races. Then when you figure it out, which isn’t very hard, you pick up a paper on day one when you’re in Belgium and the first five pages of -- not the sports page but the front page -- are about the Tour of Flanders, it gets pretty obvious that this is a pretty cool sport in Belgium, the people love it and understand it, and you want to be a part of that. Guys like Bob Roll, Ron Kiefel, Davis (Phinney), Lauritzen, Veggerby -- these guys all really enjoyed it. And we fared successfully, which set us up for the next wave of guys: Yates, Zadrobilek, Bauer, some other guys who were good in one-day racing.

Reassembling the Past

Talking with Geoff Drake, I wondered where this book was before now. It's clearly a story worth telling. It got told a lot back in the day. Now, it seems, it's got added significance, in part because of the spike in interest during the Lance years, which includes a lot of new fans who wouldn't remember the 1984 Olympics or the 1986 Tour.

PdC: How long has this book been on your mind?

Geoff: I was the editor of Velo News and Bicycling back in the day, so I was sort of a contemporary of these guys. I’d admired them for a long time and I was looking forward a way to find my way back into cycling writing, which I’ve been out of for a while. It had been my life for a number of years. So it’s something that I had thought about and then the publisher suggested it, and he knew that I had been the contemporary of all these guys, that I knew them personally, I’d ridden bikes with a number of them -- not that I’m an accomplished racer, but that was part of my approach in journalism in getting to know these guys better. And they’re just such likeable people. But the project took me four years, 100-plus interviews, background research. But it was a pleasure.

PdC: I’m sure a lot of them have told the story a lot, especially back in the day, but was this the right time for the book, that now it *really* needs to be told?

Geoff: Right. The interesting thing about that is that now, people make the assumption that US professional cycling has been around for a long time, and when you watch the Tour de France there are so many US riders represented there that it just seems like a fact of life. But in reality, that was a major cultural shift. So I think the time is right to tell that story. These guys -- when they went to Europe, there were just a few solitary riders: Jock Boyer, George Mount, people who went of their volition to Europe, lived lives of great sacrifice, slept on couches, and basically had a really difficult path into the European professional peloton. Most came home sort of chastised and exhausted. Whereas these guys, and this corporation was really instrumental in setting the foundation that enabled Lance Armstrong to compete. I mean, I make the case that Lance Armstrong -- he’s a phenomenal athlete and would have excelled at anything -- but his progression would not have been as fast, he would not have been as prominent as quickly, if these guys had not laid a foundation. Is it the right time? Yeah, I think it’s the right time to acquaint people with this element of US cycling history that they might not know about.

Modern Comparables

One last bit... because interviews need to be fun.

PdC: If you could compare someone him to someone from the present peloton, who would you compare Ron Kiefel to?

Och: Jens Voigt. He was a younger Jens Voigt.

PdC: How about Davis Phinney, what kind of sprinter would he compare to?

Och: I think Davis was like Bennati, a little bit of a scrapper. Not really like Cavendish, not as fast, but a Bennati is going to find half a dozen good wins a year and always be in the hunt. And one that, he had a transition from having the leadout capacity of a Kiefel to finding his own way. Cavendish gets the big leadout train, but that we never had for Davis. He had to find his own way a little bit, the same way Bennati does today.

PdC: Is there anyone you can compare Eric Heiden to?

Och: No, because nobody ever did what Eric did outside of cycling. Eric’s capacity as a cyclist was limited to a certain extent by his body makeup, he was too big to be competitive on climbs of a serious magnitude. And yet he had the winning mentality that he could see what was going to happen in a race. Whether he could react to it was a different story. But the times that he did react, he was very powerful, very impressive. And my biggest disappointment was when Eric couldn’t finish the Tour in 1986 because of a head injury, so close to the finish. That would have been a big accomplishment for him personally. And for us as an organization.

Photo by Bryn Lennon, Getty Images Sport