team 7-eleven. geoff drake with jim ochowicz. velopress. hardback. 322 pp illus. £19.99 ($27.95)

7-eleven by geoff drake

bruichladdich distillery closed in the mid-nineties, along with one or two other malt whisky distilleries, and was effectively mothballed until conditions became more favourable. i don't pretend to understand just what those conditions were/are, but it is the job of more than a few to keep an eye on the economics of the industry looking substantially into the future. for the title track of any distillery, if they wish to gain access to world markets, is a ten year-old single malt. there will be little more frustrating to reach that magic decade, only to discover there's a glut in the market, and those ten years receive remarkably minimal recompense.

however, only a year or so after glenmorangie purchased ardbeg distillery from its former owners, the present incumbents purchased bruichladdich from the owners of jura distillery (who had mothballed it in the first place). it is a continual irony of the industry that distillers such as ardbeg and bruichladdich have received multiple honours over the years, essentially for whiskies for which they were not responsible; the casks were in the warehouses at the point of sale.

the then new owners of 'the laddie', for reasons best known to themselves (perhaps solely for marketing purposes), decided that they were the rebels of the whisky industry. on a pipe band trip to new york, partly assisted by the distillery, i remember wearing a t-shirt bearing the legend 'clachan na choin' which, i am reliably informed, is gaelic for the dog's bollocks. despite this being a case of a group of middle-aged men pretending to be the doobie brothers, it quite plainly wasn't true, at least not in an empirical sense. bruichladdich distillery makes single malt whisky (their own ten year-old was launched a mere two weeks ago), just like every other single malt whisky distillery. granted, there are differences in taste between all eight on the island, but the process is pretty much identical, involving water, barley, yeast and peat.

the same goes for cycle teams. the sponsors may be different, the bikes may be different, and individual riders may be different, but essentially the ultimate aim is the same; to win races while riding bicycles. that no one team wins much more than any other team, rather indicates that ultimate knowledge of the process is not the preserve of a single directeur sportif. thus, geoff drake's contention that the 7-eleven team took on the world of european cycle racing on their own terms and shook it up, is perhaps a slightly over-optimistic notion. the book is subtitled 'how an unsung band of american cyclists took on the world - and won'. if i may be so bold as to quote: "the team, in turn, had changed the cycling world. indeed, in the end, the squad's cultural impact may have exceeded its athletic one, forever altering the landscape of professional cycling".

you will perhaps forgive my cynicism.

however, this rather parochial viewpoint does little to impact on the excellence of mr drake's narrative. 7-eleven was a team that impinged only marginally on my appreciation of international cycling at the time of their heyday. aside that it was a few years before i had any knowledge of just what a 7-eleven actually was (other than the phone number of islay's scottish natural heritage office), the only american that had made an impression at that time was greg lemond, someone to which credit for changing the face of professional cycling could more realistically be apportioned. it is of no credit to my historical knowledge that i'm not sure i had even realised the team to be from across the pond in the first place.

this latter misapprehension was no doubt promulgated by the appending of the word hoonved to the lower portion of the jersey front. i now discover from this book that there is a certain serendipity in gainful knowledge; hoonved is/was an italian manufacturer of industrial washing machines. co-incidental or what?

in the late seventies and early eighties, cycling in north america occupied a similar position to that of the uk only a few years back. it was the quintessential never-heard-of-it sport. in 1980, there were precisely four professional cyclists in the usa. ironically, the two men almsot single-handedly responsible for the genesis of the 7-eleven cycle team were former speed-skaters; jim ochowicz and eric heiden. the latter had won five gold medals at the winter olympics in lake placid. their eventual sponsors have entered legend as combining financial largesse with total naivety as to what they were letting themselves in for. owned by the southland corporation, 7-eleven stores were raking in money from their provision of convenience shopping and foodstuffs to an eager american population. the owners, determined to do and to be seen as having done the right thing by their nation, were persuaded to fund the construction of a velodrome for the 1984 los angeles' olympics to the tune of $4 million dollars.

though it may be an apocryphal anecdote by now, southland co-owner jere thompson, informed by his brother john as to the extent of their olympic sponsorship expressed his wholehearted agreement with the venture, followed by the question "what's a velodrome?" it was their perhaps accidental involvement with cycling that opened the eyes and ears of ochowicz that there might be more money in the pot to fund an american cycling team

there was.

the rest, to quote a well-worn cliche, is history. the inclusion of heiden in the team who, as an american gold medal winner was a most bankable individual, coupled with his delight at being able to help his fellow and future team-mates, meant that acquiring most of the country's finest cyclists was easier than could otherwise have been the case. after dominating the national scene for two or three years, ochowicz, following his true aim in life, was able to persuade 7-eleven to part with more sponsorship dollars, and took the whole operation to europe, ready to take on the world.

though i have decried drake's contention that these were the bad-boys and rebels of the peloton, in mitigation this may have been partly true. however, much of the so-called bravado seems perhaps to have been the result of naivety and a lack of awareness on the part of the riders, as to just what they'd let themselves in for. initial success was probably more down to luck and being in the right place at the wrong time. this is not to say that it remained that way for the duration of the team's existence, but if there was a hard way to learn...

the book is a true joy to read; it's very difficult to put down particularly if, as in my case, knowledge of the team verges on the non-existent. apart from the irritating habit of placing unnecessary photos on random pages, leaving little space for the words to run around, the narrative is relaxed (almost chatty, one might say), inviting and remarkably well researched. criticism is what these reviews are partly about, and if i had one in particular to relate, it is drake's continual reference to the pain and suffering aspect of the sport. if i might again quote from an early chapter in the book:

"for a normal person, this level of physical stress is one of unimaginable agony. but for elite skaters and cyclists, the searing in the lungs and limbs is commonplace - like punching a time card at the office. it's at this moment that the very best athlete will make a choice to act in a way that is the very antithesis of rational. he will find strength where there is none, summon motivation that has long since been drained and expended. he will dig deeper, heightening the sensation, using it as a perverse yardstick of achievement and success. the best athletes...will reach out and embrace the pain, welcoming it home like an old friend."

a major case of over-egging the pudding methinks. were this the sole reference to this particular aspect of cycling, i'd be inclined to smile knowingly and read on, but would that this were the case. drake returns to the pain and suffering idyll more than once too often. however, stalwarts of the lactic burn that we are, it is a simple case of glossing over these instances and enjoying what is, quite frankly, a most enjoyable read.

the other strangeness concerns the bicycles ridden by the various incarnations of the team. though hardly occupying the podium of bicycle greats, the team commenced life on schwinns and even more remarkably rode others badged as huffys. but the only frame provider that receives written adulation (not unnaturally, for it was surely a massive vote of confidence) is eddy merckx. in such a comprehensive history of the team, it would have been helpful for those of us with anorak tendencies to have gained a few words on a tautological necessity for a bicycle racing team.

the book's latter pages are awash with brief biographies of the team's riders from its period of existence (after 1990, the southland corporation hits serious financial difficulties and jettisoned any unnecessary expenditure, one of which was their cycling sponsorship. in 1991, 7-eleven became motorola). a bibliography arranged by chapter occupies several pages and there is a most comprehensive index to round off the 322 pages. geoff drake is to be congratulated on a book that successfully occupies two distinct spaces; it is an essential read if this period of cycing is one that passed you by, or one that is before your time. but it is also a more than indispensible appreciation of a team that undoubtedly occupies a favoured place in recent cycling history.

and it is my opinion that you should never ignore a book that has andy hampsten in it.

geoff drake's 7-eleven is published by velopress and available to purchase in north america from their website. in the uk the book is distributeed by cordee books and also available from prendas ciclismo.

posted sunday 2 october 2011


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