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Classic jerseys: No.13 7-Eleven

31 May 2019

This article was originally published in issue 86 of Cyclist magazine

Words Giles Belbin Photography Danny Bird

With one day remaining of the 1987 Tour de France, the manager of the 7-Eleven team, Jim Ochowicz, was a happy man.

The US squad had enjoyed a remarkable race. Davis Phinney and Dag-Otto Lauritzen had both won stages, while the team’s 23-year-old Mexican rider, Raúl Alcalá, had secured the young rider’s competition.

For a team that had arrived in Europe for the first time as a professional outfit just two years earlier, such returns on the sport’s grandest of stages represented a huge achievement.

Before the final stage into Paris started Ochowicz told his riders he was proud of them. ‘You looked like a team,’ he said. ‘Today, let’s go finish things off.’

That was exactly what they would do. With one-lap remaining of the iconic Champs-Élysées circuit that is the traditional finishing stage of the Tour, the squad’s Jeff Pierce was part of a small breakaway group at the head of the race.

Pierce had started the day intent on working for 7-Eleven’s best sprinter, Ron Kiefel, at one point going to the back of the race to help tow Kiefel back to the peloton after he had punctured, but now Pierce was the only 7-Eleven rider in the break and he was feeling good.

With around 4km to go he attacked. A couple of moves had just been brought back and the American’s racing instincts told him this was the time to go.

Pierce later reflected that, for a potential escapee from a small breakaway, the run-in to the arrivée can hit a kind of sweet spot, a time when you are close enough to the end for your move to have a chance of being sustained to the finish but also a time when the rest of the break still thinks it is too early to chase at full-pelt.

And this move would prove to have hit the sweetest of all spots.

Despite nearly being caught by a fast-closing Steve Bauer, Pierce held on to win one of the most coveted stages in cycling by a single second, crowning an incredible three   weeks of racing for the 7-Eleven team.

Before crossing the line on the Champs-Élysées with arms aloft, Pierce’s biggest win had been a stage of the Coors Classic.

‘It was a very surreal experience,’ Pierce says in Geoff Drake’s book, 7-Eleven, How An Unsung Band Of American Cyclists Took On The World And Won. ‘Almost like I was a spectator, outside of myself, watching the whole thing develop.’

Born at the Olympics

The start of the 7-Eleven team can be traced back to five years before Pierce’s win on the Champs-Élysées, when Jim Ochowicz watched speed-skater Eric Heiden tear up the Winter Olympic history books by winning five individual gold medals in Lake Placid.

Ochowicz knew Heiden well, having managed him on the US skating team. In the summer they both rode bikes for the same amateur squad.

Ochowicz wanted to form his own cycling team and, with Heiden attracting huge media coverage from his Olympic heroics, he had just the man to help make it happen.

With Heiden on board, Ochowicz approached the owners of 7-Eleven, the Southland Corporation, for sponsorship.

The timing could hardly have been better. The convenience store was already lined up as sponsor of the 1984 Olympics and was funding the renovation work underway at the Olympic velodrome.

Southland agreed and in 1981 Ochowicz’s 7-Eleven-sponsored team started racing.

Due to its connection with the amateur-only Olympics, the outfit, which also included women’s and junior squads, was an amateur affair that raced mainly on American soil.

It had nine riders on the 23-strong US Olympic cycling team that won nine medals over eight events in Los Angeles.

With the Olympics consigned to history, Ochowicz then persuaded Southland to support a professional venture, and in 1985 the 7-Eleven team set out for Europe.

It would take only a matter of weeks for their first victory to come, with Ron Kiefel winning the Trofeo Laigueglia in late February, a result that prompted the great Francesco Moser to approach the celebrating team at dinner to pass on his compliments.

Two stage wins at the Giro d’Italia followed later in the season and the team took its first Tour stage win in 1986, Davis Phinney claiming a small bunch sprint in Liévin after a photo finish just one day after his teammate, Alex Stieda, had briefly worn the yellow jersey.

The team’s greatest result, however, would come two years later.

Barring a one-year sojourn with La Vie Claire in 1986, Andy Hampsten had ridden for the 7-Eleven team since turning professional, and he entered the 1988 Giro with eyes fully on the main prize.

During the race Hampsten had been warned by Gianni Motta about the Passo di Gavia, which was featuring for the first time since 1960.

‘You have no idea how hard that pass is,’ Motta said. ‘The Giro will be won on the Gavia.’

The Italian was right. Stage 14 was 120km from Chiesa Valmalenco to Bormio, taking in climbs over the Aprica, Tonale and Gavia. It looked bad enough on paper; on the road it was torture.

During a stage that was hit by a severe blizzard and that has entered cycling lore, Hampsten took second place with icicles hanging from his bike.

It was enough to inherit the pink jersey from Franco Chioccioli who, in Colin O’Brien’s book Giro d’Italia, Hampsten described as ‘looking like a ghost’.

Hampsten, who said he ‘was racing for warmth, for the hotel’, held the jersey to the end of the race, recording by far 7-Eleven’s greatest result.

Sadly it couldn’t last. Southland was declared bankrupt in 1990 and Ochowicz was forced to find a new sponsor, with Motorola taking over in 1991.

But the legacy of the 7-Eleven team lives on in the continued globalisation of cycling.

Eddy Merckx later said, ‘The fact that there was an American team in Europe made cycling more popular worldwide.’

And 7-Eleven’s place in cycling history is assured – it remains the only cycling team inducted into the US Bicycling Hall of Fame.