On narratives (the interludes continue)

Thanks to the kind folks at VeloPress, your author is enjoying Geoff Drake’s sweeping new book, Team 7-Eleven, niftily subtitled: How an Unsung Band of American Cyclists Took on the World – and Won. The book is an essential history for anyone who has ever swung a leg over the top tube of a racing bike and thus needs little in the way of introduction. Of note, though, is how gratifying the actual reading of the book has been. For a book gourmand such as your author, Drake serves up fine writing fare by the fork full.

The details of the team and its story need not preoccupy us too much here. PEZ already has a fine review, and the rest of the story is in the book itself. Of note, though, is the remarkable confluence of events and personalities that allowed the team to happen in the first place, and to be produced from the American milieu where cycling was at best a second-tier sport. In that respect it’s a fascinating story. Unfortunately, in some ways, the team’s Tour de France debut in 1986 was overshadowed by another American cycling success story – Greg LeMond.

The 7-Eleven team made a cracking debut at the 1986 Tour, with Alex Stieda (a Canadian no less) being the first North American to wear the maillot jaune and he made it even sweeter by winning all the other classification jerseys on the same day. That he lost the race lead that very afternoon, after a disastrous TTT, showed that 7-Eleven still had much to learn (although Davis Phinney later won a stage). Perhaps the most significant impact on the overall race was Doug Shapiro riding into Pedro Delgado causing the latter to crash and abandon the Tour.

Whatever excitement the team generated, however, was nothing in comparison to Greg LeMond’s race. This blog has already posted some entries on LeMond’s career, but these pale in comparison, of course, to the exhaustive analysis of the 1986 Tour by Richard Moore in his (essential) book, Slaying the Badger. It seems a remarkable historical coincidence that the 7-Eleven team would first race at the Tour the same year that an American – riding for a French team – would win the race and in such a dramatic fashion.

The 1987 Tour was a better year for 7-Eleven, even if Andy Hampsten, back on the team after his stint with La Vie Claire (and a prominent role in the 1986 Tour, including 4th place overall), struggled to reach his previous level. The Mexican climbing machine Raul Alcala won the white jersey for the best young rider. Davis Phinney took another stage win. The Norwegian rider Dag Otto Lauritzen won a mountain stage in the Pyrenees (a feat that countryman Thor Hushovd would repeat at this year’s Tour). And, finally, Jeff Pierce won the final stage on the Champs-Élysées – beating out Steve Bauer (who would later join the team after negotiations with Greg LeMond for the 1990 season fell through). But the 1987 Tour was another one for high excitement for the overall, with Stephen Roche winning a tough edition that maximized both the drama and the suffering (you can read about it on this blog right here).

What remains endearingly interesting about pro racing, especially the Grand Tours, are the layers of narrative – the number of stories that each race involves. With multiple teams and numerous riders, everyone has a story to tell. There were some absolutely fascinating editions of the Tour de France in the late 1908s (indeed the whole decade). Without the inclusion of the 7-Eleven team, they would likely still be races worthy of legend. But what Geoff Drake’s book does is to remind us that there are lesser-known stories to be told, ones that don’t grab the same limelight as the better known ones, but which are still worthy of reading. This is what keeps our sport so endlessly fascinating.

A final comment on 7-Eleven. As is well known, its parent company stopped sponsoring the team in the middle of 1990. The quintessentially American company was rescued from financial strife in 1991 by its Japanese franchise Ito-Yokado and became Seven & I Holdings Co., which continued to expand the brand worldwide. The stores are widely in evidence around the world these days and their logo continues to pop up in unexpected places related to cycling. For your author, the local east-west bike path is sponsored by the company; the classic logo signs are an ongoing reminder of a little slice of cycling history.

P.S. Your author spoke recently with Geoff Drake for a story for PEZ Cycling News, which will be published shortly.