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Motorola, the team that kept US pro racing alive

In-depth
14 Nov 2019
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On the morning of 14th April 1991, Motorola’s sports director, Jim Ochowicz, sat in front of his team in a small hotel bedroom in Compiègne with a map and a list of instructions. It was the team’s first Classics campaign and Ochowicz was keen to impress the cycling world.

The previous autumn he had worked hard to secure a new title sponsor for his 7-Eleven outfit after the owner of the convenience stores brand, Southland Corporation, had been declared bankrupt.

Ochowicz had been a matter of weeks from giving up and releasing all his riders when he mentioned his dilemma to fellow former racer John Vande Velde.

Vande Velde had contacts at Motorola, an organisation where fortunes were booming thanks to the growing mobile market. Three weeks later Ochowicz had his new title sponsor in a deal worth nearly $2 million.

Motorola executives demanded a return for their investment and that meant good visibility of the team in the sport’s biggest races.

Ochowicz had managed to convince the experienced Phil Anderson to sign for his new outfit and the Australian secured two early wins, at the Tour Méditerraneén and the Settimana Siciliana (now called the Settimana Internazionale di Coppi e Bartali). But the Classics brought a whole different level of exposure.

American television cameras had been invited into the Motorola camp to follow the campaign. Presenter Phil Liggett watched on as the squad completed reconnaissance rides and ate dinner, had massages and conducted briefings in preparation for the most famous one-day race of them all: Paris-Roubaix.

Ochowicz’s plans revolved around Canadian rider Steve Bauer, who had come within 1cm of winning in Roubaix the previous year, and in that hotel room he dished out each rider’s responsibilities in support of Bauer.

‘Stop for everything, for flats, for crashes,’ he told them. ‘You give him his food, keep him out of the wind. You gotta cover him 100%.’

As the race hit the decisive sectors of cobblestones Bauer was well placed in the leading group. Unfortunately for the Canadian he was unable to follow a late move made by Marc Madiot, falling away as the leading group split.

As Madiot powered away to victory, Bauer hauled himself furiously back to the chasing group in time to contest the sprint for the minor places, ultimately finishing fourth.

It wasn’t a podium spot but Bauer had been visible all day and it remained the team’s best result of their first Classics season.

Triumph and tragedy at the Tour

Three months later Anderson claimed Motorola’s first Tour de France stage, joining a four-rider breakaway 25km from the finish in Quimper and then winning the sprint ahead of a fast-approaching peloton.

Anderson would claim more wins for the outfit, including two overall titles at the Kellogg’s Tour of Britain, before ending his career at the team.

Motorola’s highest-profile rider was Lance Armstrong, who turned professional with the team immediately after the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Armstrong’s impact was huge: National and World Championships wins arrived in 1993 as well as a third Tour de France stage (Andy Hampsten had claimed the team’s second stage win in 1992).

His successful haul of race wins in the US during the first half of 1993, including the Thrift Drug Classic, the West-Virginia Mountain Classic and the National Championships in the space of just two weeks, secured a prize of $1 million.

In 2015 Armstrong said under oath that he understood his ‘triple crown’ was aided by the team management orchestrating payments to rivals. Ochowicz subsequently moved to deny the claim.

The team’s worst moment came during the 1995 Tour when Fabio Casartelli died after crashing during a stage in the Pyrenees. The Italian had signed with Motorola for the 1995 season and was building a promising career in the professional ranks, having won gold in Barcelona three years earlier.

Called up to ride the Tour just two days before the race started, Casartelli was lying 87th overall as the peloton started a 206km stage from St Girons to Cauterets that would take in a number of major mountain passes.

The race went over the summit of the Col de Portet d’Aspet, the first climb of the day, just before noon. As they descended the climb, a group of six riders all fell on one of the final technical corners.

Most managed to pick themselves up and continue, while French rider Dante Rezze was rescued from the ravine below. Casartelli lay motionless in the road, however, with blood pouring from his head. It was a desperate sight.

Casartelli had suffered multiple cranial injuries. He was airlifted to hospital in Tarbes with medics trying to revive him on the way. It was no use. He was pronounced dead as his teammates were still riding to the stage finish.

‘His heart stopped three times in the helicopter but it was brain trauma that caused the death,’ a hospital spokesman said. ‘He died 30 minutes after reaching hospital.’

Casartelli had recently got married and had a three-month-old child with his new wife. The next day the peloton observed a minute’s silence and neutralised the stage. At the finish in Pau, the Motorola team were left to cross the line together.

‘It was a day of mourning, and it was poignant and admirable,’ reported L’Equipe. Three days after the accident Armstrong claimed an emotional stage win in Limoges. Today a monument stands at the spot where Casartelli fell.

The following year Armstrong won La Flèche Wallonne and the Clásica de San Sebastián, representing the team’s best performances in the one-day Classics.

Motorola left the sport at the end of 1996 but the team’s legacy lives on in the now ubiquitous use of two-way radios. Motorola had been the first team to use radio communication, an innovation that would change racing immeasurably.

This jersey is part of Paul Van Bommel’s collection of memorabilia, on display at the Bike Experience Centre in Boom, Belgium. Go to deschorre.be/develodroom.html

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