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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: The boys from 7-Eleven and the debut of American pro road racing

  • By John Wilcockson
  • Published Feb. 3, 2006

By John Wilcockson

Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: The boys from 7-Eleven and the debut of American pro road racing

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A few weeks ago, at a dinner in Boulder hosted by USA Cycling, I got talking with Davis Phinney, the man with more road race wins to his credit than any other American cyclist. Davis was recalling just one of the 300-plus victories he scored in a combined amateur and pro career that extended from 1977 to 1993. The win he was most animated about came in a rather special race at Baltimore in 1983, the second annual USPRO Championship.

Phinney was racing for the U.S. national team that day because UCI rules then decreed that amateur racers could only compete against pro teams when an event had “open” status and the amateurs were riding on national teams. But that Baltimore race — which I’ll come back to — and Phinney’s regular team that season (sponsored by 7-Eleven) played prominent roles in making American professional road racing a reality.

By the time the 7-Eleven team was founded in 1981, amateur road racing was fully established in North America. There had already been five editions of Colorado’s Red Zinger Classic, which became the Coors Classic in 1980, when the Coors brewery took over the event’s title sponsorship.

The first Coors winner was Jonathan Boyer, who went on to place fifth at the 1980 world pro road championship in Sallanches, France. Boyer raced that year for a French team, Sem-France-Loire. There weren’t any pro teams in the U.S., so American pioneers like Boyer, Greg LeMond, Mike Neel, George Mount and John Eustice had to cross the Atlantic to earn places on European squads. This was the situation Jim Ochowicz wanted to change.

Ochowicz grew up in Wisconsin, where, like many other athletes, he came into cycling as a track racer, while competing as a speedskater in the winter. He made it onto the U.S. national team in both sports, and was on two Olympic cycling teams as a team pursuiter. Ochowicz won dozens of criteriums and road races, his most notable victory coming in the 1974 edition of the 250km Canadian classic Quèbec-Montrèal — he won the final sprint from Neel in a nine-man breakaway group that also included three other outstanding American amateurs, John Allis, Dave Chauner and John Howard.

Ochowicz was only 28 and still racing when he went into sports management, almost by accident. “I was recruited by the Heidens,” he remembers, “to manage the U.S. national speedskating team.” Like Ochowicz, Eric Heiden and his younger sister, Beth, were Wisconsinites, and they had both been on the 1976 Olympic speedskating team as teenagers.

Eric Heiden was already a two-time world speedskating champion when he contacted Ochowicz in 1979, and he of course went on to blitz the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid by taking an unprecedented five gold medals (while, later that year, his sister Beth became the second U.S. rider to win the world women’s road championship).

At age 21, Eric Heiden hung up his skates and turned to bike racing, on both road and track. In that fall of 1980, Heiden and Ochowicz were competing together at the Lehigh Valley Velodrome in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania. Between races, the two friends started talking about the sport.

Who better to approach for sponsorship than the Southland Corp?

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“It was raining,” recalls Ochowicz, “and we were sheltering in the barn there. I said to Eric I had this idea to create a pro cycling team like they had in Europe, with a sponsor that was the name of the team, along with full-time managers, mechanics and soigneurs.”

Heiden said he would help as much as he could and lent his (very high-profile) name to the project. With that boost, Ochowicz secured trade sponsorships from Schwinn bicycles and Descente clothing and went to the 1980 road nationals in Bisbee, Arizona, where he recruited most of the riders he needed. But there was still the matter of a title sponsor to tie down.

Ochowicz said, “I ran my story by George Taylor [a Dutch sports agent living in New York City who was a familiar with securing major sponsorships]. George pitched my idea to the Thompson brothers at Southland Corporation.”

John, Jere and Joe Thompson operated Dallas-based Southland, which owned the 7-Eleven convenience store chain and Citgo petroleum, and was one of the fastest-growing Fortune 500 companies. Taylor’s approach to Southland came at a perfect time, said Ochowicz. A week before Taylor’s visit, the Thompsons had concluded a major deal with 1984 Los Angeles Olympics organizer Peter Ueberroth for 7-Eleven to be a prime sponsor of the Summer Games.

“They’d been assigned Olympic cycling,” said Ochowicz, “so they readily agreed to sponsor a cycling team that was tied to success at the Olympics.” The plan called for the 7-Eleven cycling team, which would later include women’s and juniors’ programs, to remain amateur through the ’84 Games and then join the professional peloton.

Eric Heiden was the best known of the seven-man team that raced in the red, green and white colors of 7-Eleven-Schwinn in its inaugural season of 1981. The others were Americans Jeff Bradley, Greg Demgen, Tom Schuler, Danny Van Haute and Roger Young, along with Canadian pro Ron Hayman.

That first year — when Bradley, Demgen and Schuler also raced in Europe for the U.S. national amateur road team — the team’s best results came in the national criterium championships (won by Bradley) and the season-ending Great Mohawk Carpet Classic. This 100km circuit race in Atlantic City was the richest race yet in cycling history, with more than $70,000 in prizes. It proved a showcase for the 7-Eleven-Schwinn team, which put Bradley, Hayman and Heiden into the winning four-man break. Hayman lapped the field to take first place with Heiden in second.

While Schwinn dropped out as the team’s co-sponsor, 7-Eleven stepped up its investment in 1982. Ochowicz recruited two more national team members, Phinney and Ron Kiefel, along with a second Canadian, Alex Stieda. The start of the team’s second season coincided with the settling of the ongoing dispute between the U.S, Cycling Federation and the U.S. Professional Racing Organization (see “Inside Cycling” – December 20, 2005), which opened the way for pro road racing to finally get a foothold in North America.

The first road event to be promoted by USPRO’s Dave Chauner and Jack Simes was the inaugural U.S. Professional Criterium Championship, which took place in Baltimore on June 6, 1982. Forty-four of the 72 starters were from overseas, while just 16 American pros toed the line alongside national amateur teams from the U.S. and Canada.

The 100km criterium was co-promoted by Baltimore’s NBC affiliate, WMAR-TV, which gave the race 90 minutes of live coverage. The crowd at the city’s Inner Harbor was estimated at 20,000 people, who excitedly mobbed the finishers right after Australian pros Shane Sutton and Danny Clark took first and second places ahead of U.S.-based Norwegian Dag Selander. European-based Eustice, from Ivyland, Pennsylvania, finished sixth and picked up the first-ever USPRO stars-and-stripes champion’s jersey.

Impressing the bosses
The 7-Eleven team’s top amateurs didn’t compete in Baltimore because they were racing the same day in Boulder, Colorado’s Harvest Criterium (Kiefel and Phinney fought out the sprint finish), which took place 48 hours before the start of the Coors Classic. In the following 12-day stage race, 7-Eleven took five stage wins: two each for Hayman and Phinney, and one for Stieda. Those wins were important for the team because one came in Denver (1st. Hayman, 2nd. Phinney) on the only day the Southland Corporation’s top management visited the race, while the other, the final stage in Boulder, was taken by Phinney in a live CBS broadcast that had a national audience.

Despite their many stage successes, 7-Eleven and the other domestic teams (including GS Mengoni, Raleigh, Sidi and Giordana) were dominated in the overall standings by the Colombian national team, whose Patro Jimenez and Martin Ramirez placed first and second after big wins in the mountain stages.

Domestic pro racing was still in its formative stages, but its potential became clear later that year when Heiden was one of six Americans to start the world pro road championship at Goodwood, England. Heiden didn’t finish the 275km race, but both Boyer and LeMond — the winners of the previous two Coors Classics — made it into the winning 10-man break. LeMond placed second in that controversial world’s (see “InsideCycling” – May 16, 2005) to begin his rapid rise to the top of pro cycling.

Meanwhile, as Heiden, Hayman, Phinney, Kiefel and the other 7-Eleven riders prepared for the American team’s third season, a press conference was held in Washington, DC, on November 9 to announce the country’s first-ever pro-sanctioned stage race: the Tour of America. This was to be a three-day event in April 1983, from Virginia Beach to the nation’s capital, with a $100,000 prize list and the promised participation of six top European pro teams.

Attending the press conference on behalf of the New York-based organizers, World Tour Cycling, was the co-director of the Tour de France, Fèlix Lèvitan, who like many cycling insiders believed that pro racing was about to explode in North America.

I’ll tell you the story of that first (and only) Tour of America — and Phinney’s victory in the second edition of the USPRO Championship — in next week’s “Inside Cycling” column.

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