Ron Kiefel Brings Team 7-Eleven–and America–Its First Grand Tour Stage Win

Team 7-Eleven is the extraordinary story of how two Olympic speed skaters, Jim Ochowicz and Eric Heiden, pulled together a small group of amateur cyclists and turned them into one of the greatest cycling teams the sport has known. 

Enjoy this excerpt, which sees the 7-Elevens invited to race the 1985 Giro d’Italia.

Jim Ochowicz’s stated goals for the 7-Eleven team at the 1985 Giro d’Italia were to win a stage and get a rider in the top 20. But while the riders had grown in ability, organization, and sophistication, their reception in Europe was tepid at best. In part, they were victims of a previous American disaster. The year before, in 1984, pioneering pro John Eustice had fielded an American team in the Giro, with lackluster results. When the 7-Elevens showed up 12 months later, brimming with ambition, “the Italians were skeptical,” said Ron Kiefel with typical understatement.

The team’s spirits were briefly buoyed in the opening stage when Davis Phinney was 4th in a sprint finish. Then, just two days later, Andy Hampsten attacked in the mountains, at one point gaining 30 seconds. As he crested the climb, it seemed he was observing himself from afar, a participant in a life he had only dreamed of. “When I went over the top, there were four ahead of me,” he said, “LeMond, Hinault, Saronni, and Moser. It was weird to hear those four names announced, and then my own.” Though the group was eventually reeled in, for Hampsten the experience provided a tantalizing glimpse of what was possible. “It was my one shot to prove myself to the Europeans,” he said, feeling philosophical. “It’s a big trip, and there was no guarantee you would be invited back. So I tried to make the most of it.”

Unfortunately, things soon turned calamitous. The next day began with slanting rain. Phinney’s big toes had somehow become swollen and infected, requiring that pieces of his shoes be cut away. He almost didn’t start. Even worse, the entire team was in declining health, with colds and bronchitis. Hampsten, spent from his effort the previous day, lost nine minutes and collapsed at the finish. If that weren’t enough, a team car wouldn’t start and had to be pushed.

In the United States, the squad had become accustomed to quick and abundant wins. But, at the Giro, it was quite clear that things had changed. “In Europe, we were back at the bottom of the heap,” said Tom Schuler. Kiefel remembers that the races would typically start at a tourist’s pace. At first, it seemed easy. The boys would just roll along and “eat a bunch of panini”—crude, doughy sandwiches that were the homemade predecessors to today’s energy bars. Then, suddenly, the media helicopters would arrive, heralding the start of the real racing, as each team vied to get its jersey at the front of the pack where it would be seen by the cameras. “It would go from 30 kph to 50 kph,” said Kiefel. “It would open up—it was so chaotic and painful. People would crash; there would just be this mountain of bikes.”

By the time the rest day arrived, the team was suffering from three colds, two cases of bronchitis, infected toes, and one broken collarbone (Jeff Bradley). At one point, even Mike Neel, the team’s brilliant coach, was exhausted from all his ministrations and passed out.

By the second week, “we were pretty demoralized,” said Kiefel, woefully. A photo in the book shows that adapting to the speed and distance of European racing was a challenge for the team; Kiefel’s face at Italy’s Tirreno-Adriatico race tells the story.

The European peloton is a cloistered society, steeped in tradition, infused with rites of passage and built on debts of pain and perseverance. From the perspective of the other teams, the 7-Elevens had paid no such debts, and as a result they were not very welcome. No sooner had the race gotten under way than they were demonized as crashers. “Whenever there was a shift in the peloton, or someone rubbed tires, Americans were always blamed,” said Bradley.

At one point, another team director went so far as to chastise Ochowicz for his riders’ etiquette—or lack of same—in the peloton. In the third stage, Phinney looked poised for a win, when an Italian rider tried to go between the American and the race fencing, crashing hard. The Italian’s manager publicly accused Phinney of “hooking, attempted manslaughter, and just about everything else,” according to VeloNews. Even the press gleefully joined in the condemnation before the stage winner, Saronni, said that this was ridiculous, and the affair was put to rest.

At times the antipathy was blatant and even dangerous. In one stage, Italian Roberto Conti grabbed Kiefel’s brake cables, which has the same effect as someone steering your bike out from underneath you. “That’s the most helpless feeling,” said Kiefel, who miraculously stayed upright.

As the broadsides continued, Neel encouraged his riders to respond in kind to any transgressions. “To hell with them,” he told his riders. He figured that Phinney, never one to be tangled with in a sprint, was more than capable of handling himself. “You’re not going to shove around a Davis Phinney,” he crowed. “Our guys weren’t going to have it.” Schuler took the mission as his own. When someone accused him of riding erratically, “I just turned and started screaming, ‘Right now, let’s go!’ That was it—I didn’t hear from him again. One by one, we earned their respect.”

But if the team failed to be intimidated, it was at least in part owing to a state of blissful naïveté. Earlier that season Kiefel found himself jostling and bumping handlebars with “a little French guy.”

Not one to be easily unsettled, he pushed the rider back. It was only later that someone identified the offender as the unofficial boss of the peloton, Bernard Hinault. “I had no clue,” said Kiefel.

Indeed, were it not for an element of obliviousness, the enormity of their task might have been overwhelming. “It was good not to be starstruck,” said Kiefel. Instead, the team went blithely about its business, tilting against the European cycling establishment, threatening to topple it.

Some of the team’s behavior was deliberately contrary—Kiefel called it being “anti-Europe.” They ate Mexican food at the team table, rather than the traditional pasta. Even worse, Jonathan Boyer was a vegetarian, which the Italians regarded as tantamount to insanity for a calorie-starved bike rider doing 100-plus miles per day. Even their personal habits were different. Kiefel remembers that American team members didn’t don their cycling shorts at the hotel each morning—they would wait until they got to the race. Meanwhile, the Italians would wear their cycling kit from the moment they rose in the morning. “We thought that was ludicrous,” said Kiefel. At press functions, the 7-Elevens would dress in shorts and T-shirts, while the impeccable Italians wore matching team clothes.

Some of the criticism was warranted and even self-inflicted. En route to races, and despite Neel’s considerable language skills, the team would routinely get lost and end up careening through the streets and driving on sidewalks in order to make it to the start on time. Some riders would arrive carsick from the madness. It all contributed to the general notion that the Americans were a little wacky. “They thought we were nuts,” said Kiefel flatly.

Neel, who had ridden under similar conditions as an American interloper in the early 1970s, seemed to relish the way his boys were undermining the European hegemony. “We had a female soigneur. We played loud music. We ate Mexican food. We did things our way,” he said. Bob Roll, rapidly emerging as the team clown, delighted in the whole imbroglio, and began telling the press that the boys were Indians, living in tepees along the roadways.

By the second week, the race seemed to be spinning out of control, an ongoing nightmare of crashes and illness, made even worse by an aura of thinly veiled disdain toward the American rookies. So before stage 15, a difficult, 203-km march to Perugia, Neel issued a mandate. He felt sure that a big break was going to occur and “no matter what,” threatened Neel, the boys “were not to miss it.” True to Neel’s prediction, a big breakaway escaped halfway through the race. And true to his fears, the 7-Elevens missed it.

Neel was generally a calm and reasoned presence, but when he felt he was not being heeded, he could summon considerable vitriol. This was such a circumstance. He came alongside in the team car and, using some graphically precise language, exhorted them to chase. They dutifully nodded. But once Neel was out of earshot, the boys agreed that the very idea of chasing down such a powerful break was “crazy,” according to Kiefel.

Fortunately, Francesco Moser, the previous year’s overall winner, was also in the chase group, commanding it forward in his autocratic style. The 7-Elevens latched on, becoming the beneficiaries of this Italian march to the front.

Kiefel, riding securely in the pack, had just one job: to protect his team leader, Hampsten, keeping him out of the wind and near the front, where the risk of a crash was minimal. So when the group finally caught and reabsorbed the breakaway, Kiefel sat up in relief, his job done. But a moment later, several riders attacked, and Kiefel found himself among them.

The small group soon turned mutinous, attacking each other, one after another: first Marino Lejarreta, a Spanish veteran who had won the Tour of Spain in 1982; and then Acacio Da Silva, a young Portuguese pro with a few wins to his name. “I thought, crap!” said a reluctant Kiefel. “It’s my turn to attack.”

Anonymity has its benefits, and at that moment, no one considered Kiefel to be a serious threat. “When I went, they were thinking, ‘Who the hell is this American guy?’ And they sat up.”

Kiefel caught the one rider remaining off the front, former world road champion Gerrie Knetteman, who promptly jumped on his wheel. “I told him to pull through, and he gave me the international ‘no’ sign—a head nod,” said Kiefel. “We turned onto a big boulevard, all dusty. I just started to pull. I kept waiting for him to come around.” But no one—not Knetteman or anyone else—was coming around that day. “As I hit the finish line, all these flashbulbs were going off,” said Kiefel. “There is a great picture of me going, ‘Huh?’” He had won by a scant two seconds.

It was classic Kiefel—an understated victory that was, to all around him, an astounding display of pure talent and speed. Hampsten called the stage win “amazing. When everyone was going as fast as they could—in the final kilometers into Perugia, where all the Italians knew the finish—he dropped them all like a stone.”

But it was more than just a stage win. For Kiefel, for Ochowicz, and for the entire, audacious adventure, their place in the peloton was forever changed that day. The win signaled, in one small but significant way, that the Americans had arrived. Even the self-effacing Kiefel seemed to recognize the magnitude of his breakthrough victory. “It was a big celebration, we had wine, and morale went way up,” he said. “The difference was night and day. All of a sudden, we were invited to participate at the front. The Americans weren’t schlocks anymore.”

Team 7-Eleven by Geoff Drake with Jim Ochowicz
The day after his stage win in Perugia, Kiefel reads about his exploits in La Gazzetta dello Sport. From left: Ron Kiefel, Tom Schuler, Chris Carmichael (hidden), Eric Heiden, Bob Roll, Andy Hampsten, Davis Phinney, and Jonathan Boyer (back to camera).

 

[Continue to the next excerpt from Team 7-Eleven on Andy Hampsten’s Giro d’Italia stage win.]

Team 7-Eleven is the extraordinary story of how two Olympic speed skaters, Jim Ochowicz and Eric Heiden, pulled together a small group of amateur cyclists and turned them into one of the greatest cycling teams the sport has known. 

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