Monday, December 19, 2011

"Team 7-Eleven"--Pain in the Peloton

On the surface, Geoff Drake's book "Team 7-Eleven, How an Unsung Band of American Cyclists Took on the World--And Won" is the history of the first American team to race in the Tour de France and a biography of its director, Jim Ochowicz, but the book has a strong underlying theme of how demanding and painful bicycle racing is, so much so that "pain" is a category in the index. There are ten entries, though there could have been forty more.

Drake knows his subject well. He was a young journalist covering the sport of cycling during the ten years of 7-Eleven's existence up to l991, when its sponsorship was taken over by Motorola. And he is a racer as well, though not of national caliber. He doesn't comment on his own racing, but it is clear he has spent many an hour in the saddle trying to keep up, describing the pain and suffering of racing with the eloquence of one who is on the most intimate terms with it. He never passes up an opportunity to comment on how much one must suffer to race. He calls it the "rider's lot," as is one of the sub-heads under "pain" in the index. Sprinkled throughout the book are references to pain as "the constant currency of racers" and racing as "relentless pain." He asserts that a racer must have a "capacity for suffering" and a "high tolerance for pain."

Early on he devotes half a page of testimony to his close personal relationship with pain and suffering on the bike, describing it in detail. "It is as if every muscle is being pickled with acid," he writes, "Every fiber screams to be released from its state of purgatory; every rational thought says to stop...For a normal person, this load of physical stress is one of unimaginable agony. But for elite cyclists the searing in the lungs and limbs is commonplace--like punching a time card at the office."

No book on cycling can avoid the mention of pain, but few dwell on it to the extent that this does. When describing the great camaraderie of the 7-Eleven racers, beyond that of any other team he asserts, he said it provided "an essential buffer against the monumental pain and suffering that the sport engendered," one of the many references overlooked in the index.

Writing of the legendary stage in the l988 Giro d'Italia over the Gavia in the snow that led to the team's and Andy Hampsten's greatest victory, he said the riders spent the day "on the threshold of life and death." He quotes Hampsten's Norwegian teammate Dag Lauritzen as saying, "I knew pain, but that day was terrible."

He further implies that suffering is synonymous with racing when he refers to the list of Eddie Merck's wins as "the full continuum of suffering." A photo of Lauritzen in The Tour de France, where he won a stage riding for the team, is titled "Sufferfest." No opportunity is lost to associate racing with pushing one's self to one's threshold of pain and beyond. He describes Ron Keifel as one who "had the universal quality endemic to successful cyclists, which was that he knew how to suffer." Keifel pays teammate Bob Roll the ultimate compliment: "That guy could suffer."

He acknowledges that there can be pleasure in the pain. He says, "The best athletes will reach out and embrace the pain, welcoming it home like an old friend." He quotes Hampsten on his winning effort in a time trial at the l988 Giro that "it hurt so much it felt like a meditation."

Amidst all this pain obsession is the great story of how Ochowicz with much determination put together a team of American racers who could battle on equal terms with the European veterans of the peloton, winning stages of the two premier races in the world on its first attempt--the Giro d'Italia in l985 and The Tour de France in l986, and grew into the team that won The Tour de France with Lance Armstrong from 1999 to 2005.

Eric Heiden played a significant role in winning 7-Eleven's sponsorship, as he was fresh off winning five speed-skating medals at the 1980 Olympics and was as prominent an athlete as there was in the world. Any company would be thrilled to be associated with him. Their initial investment in the team was $250,000. Ochowicz thought he could afford six riders, paying them each $12,000, and using the rest of the stipend for expenses. He settled on Heiden, Roger Young, Danny Van Haute, Tom Schuler, and Ron Haymen. He couldn't decide between two up-and-comers, Greg Demgen and Jeff Bradley, for the sixth spot, so offered them each $6,000 each, which they accepted.

They were the most successful team on the US circuit. Everyone wanted to ride for them. The next year Ochowicz added Davis Phinney, Ron Keifel and Alex Steida, who became the core of the team and figured prominently when they finally went to Europe in 1985. From those humble beginnings by 1989 it could afford to offer Greg LeMond $5.7 million for a three-year contract after his second win in The Tour de France. Ochowicz thought he had an agreement with LeMond, but he settled on a better offer from the French team Z. The following year he won The Tour for the third and final time.

The book concludes with the end of 7-Eleven's sponsorship due to an economic down turn, but with the good news that John Vande Velde, father of Christian and a former Olympic racing teammate of Ochowicz, arranged for Motorola to take over the team.

As knowledgeable as Drake is, his book, as just about every other cycling book written by an American who did not grow up living and breathing bicycle racing as he might have baseball or football, has a fumble that no European book on the sport would commit, failing to be consistent when it comes to that greatest of climbs--L'Alpe d'Huez. On page 261 he spells it right, but on pages 240 and 286 he leaves off the honorific "L" that the French always accord it. L'Alpe d'Huez also qualified for an index oversight with only two of the three mentions listed.

Inconsistent spelling of L'Alpe d'Huez is all too common and as aggravating as the frequent misspelling of peloton. "Velo News," now "Velo," is a chronic offender, sometimes referring to it three different ways in the same issue. It can have alternate spellings on the same page. Its just not well enough ingrained in the consciousness of American writers and editors.

Bill and Carol McGann in their two-volume "The Story of the Tour de France" capitalize the "L" in their first volume but use lower case in their second. Since it was introduced to The Tour in 1952, it was only mentioned three times in volume one, covering the years 1903 to 1964. In the second volume it is mentioned more than thirty times, going with the lower case "L" this time, though four times without any "L" at all. Curiously it is listed under "L" in the index of the first volume, but under "A" in the second. As with Drake's book, several mentions are not listed in the index.

Drake and the McGanns had a minimum of factual and editing transgressions compared to many American books on The Tour. One of the worst was "The Tour de France for Dummies" even saying the Tourmalet is in the Alps. Wait until my report on Samuel Abt, the "New York Times" reporter who covered bicycling racing in Europe for a couple of decades and wrote eleven books about the sport from 1985 to 2005. His mistakes go on and on.


gzaborac said...

I live in central Illinois and belong to the Quad Cities Bicycle Club. Club member Jeff Bradley is a Davenport native and now owns a bike shop there. The featured speaker at this year's annual banquet was Bob Roll. He's an entertaining guy who spoke at length about biking, drinking, racing, drinking, broadcasting, drinking, the Tour de France, drinking, the French, and drinking. It was pretty cool to get to spend the evening with two members of the 7-Eleven cycling team.

Gregory Zaborac
Canton, IL

Unknown said...

Hi George,

Thanks for your thorough review of Team 7-Eleven! We appreciate it very much.

We thought we'd toss in a quick note about Alpe vs. l'Alpe. Here's an editor's note in response to a reader letter from the February 2012 issue of Velo (fka "VeloNews"):

"As contributor (and fluent French speaker) John Wilcockson explains: Huez is the name of the village halfway up the valley side, and L'Alpe d'Huez is "The Alpe of Huez," the Alp (or Alpe in French) is the summer meadow where the villagers would graze their sheep and cattle after the snow melted. But the name is confusing. Hachette (the French bible of place names) has it as "L'Alpe." The Baedecker travel guide has it as "the Alpe." Michelin Red Book has it as "L'Alpe," but Michelin maps has it as "Alpe" (no L). The Dauphine newspaper refers to it as "L'Alpe" and as "l'Alpe" on second reference. And Tour de France owner ASO has always used "L'Alpe d'Huez," until recent years when they've sometimes dropped the "L" altogether. Velo style is "L'Alpe d'Huez" for first reference, then it can be referred to as "l'Alpe," or "the Alpe," or when quoting people, even Alpe d'Huez, if that's how they say it."

So hope this sheds some light on what, arguably, is not a universally recognized spelling. The Team 7-Eleven book may seem inconsistent, but it will follow a style of usage that derives from mountain vs. town.

For a real mind-blowing read, check out our book The Tour Is Won on the Alpe by Jean-Paul Vespini or our book Alpe d'Huez by Gerard Ejnes.


george christensen said...

Dave: That was my letter that "Velo" published. I have a finely tuned radar for references to L'Alpe d'Huez.

I have read the two books you published devoted to L'Alpe d'Huez and can highly recommend them. I can also tell you that neither are consistent in their references to their subject. The Ejnes book goes without the "L" except on four occasions (three times on page 89 and the last page) while Vespini's book alternates between using the L and going without, sometimes using the two versions on the same page. At least it is consistent in sticking to the capital L, rather than lower case.