PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania (VN) — For five years Eric Heiden has been sacrificed to the media, often without the satisfaction of standing on the victory blocks.
Patiently he has answered the scribes’ questions, politely explaining the fundamentals of cycling while his teammates have answered the call to glory. He has been a part-time cyclist whose successes have come in between semesters at Stanford or stints as a television commentator. But he has always been a fulltime celebrity — the drawing card the Southland Corporation wanted him to be when they formed the 7-Eleven team around him five years ago.
Yet quietly through all this Heiden has honed his cycling, trimming his 29-inch thighs down to a more manageable size for the rigors of road racing. His teammates talk of Heiden’s superior athletic ability, which allows him to gain more with less training.
Still, from a 7-Eleven point of view, the CoreStates Professional Championship June 23 was to be set up for Davis Phinney or Ron Kiefel. But when the cards didn’t fall in the two Coloradans’ favor, Heiden had a chance to show off what he had learned over the past few years — particularly at the recently completed Giro d’Italia. And he culminated it by blowing four others out the back door in a sprint to don his first stars-and-stripes jersey ever in front of a crowd of 25,000.
“I rode the best race I’ve ever ridden,” beamed Heiden, 27, after he covered the 156 miles in 6 hours, 26 minutes, 39 seconds to earn $20,000 out of the $100,000 purse.
Heiden acknowledges that had he been able to devote all his time to cycling in recent years, his shift from a power sport to an endurance sport might not have taken close to four years. “It would have come sooner. Even now I have a big body for a bike racer, especially for climbing,” said Heiden, who packs 180 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame. (“I’ve dropped to 175 a couple times, but I’ve felt weak.”)
Though Heiden negotiates those 180 pounds with considerable ease — climbing with conviction, sprinting with determination — it was his teammates who were to get the call June 23. “When we started, we were going to work for Kiefel and Phinney,” he said of the 7-Eleven strategy. “We weren’t sure how the race was going to turn out.”
The field for the first pro road championship in this country had a lot of question marks. Few had the experience of racing the distance that was scheduled. Many were neo pros like Phinney, but without the benefit of a Giro in their legs. Those that were accustomed to a European style event were listed but no-shows: Greg LeMond, Doug Shapiro, Steve Bauer, Dag Otto Lauritzen, Noel Dejonckheere.
Though LeMond had shown a serious interest in the race, the date fell too close to the Tour de France, which was to start five days later. That and the fact that most European national championships were on the same day kept many riders on the Continent.
The heat, the humidity, the distance and the Manayunk Wall were the factors most felt would eventually shatter the field into small groups. Attrition would let the stronger riders move to the front without the need for serious attacking. 7-Eleven was the only team with experience and depth and. as so often happens in this country, it was assumed the moves would be keyed off those riders.
“The repetition, the distance and the heat will start hurting people,” predicted Phinney after riding the course Saturday.
The only real question mark were the handful of triathletes entered, “I hope they’re good riders,” said Phinney with a hint of concern in his voice. “I only worry about their bike handling. I’d hate to see a crash in this kind of a race because of something like that. I don’t like that aspect.”
If anything, it was figured, the triathletes would force the riders to help break up the field.
“It should be somewhat like the Olympics,” observed Phinney. “A lot of people will die because of the hill. Whoever is riding best at the end will win.”
As for his team’s strategy, “We’d like to have somebody go with any suicidal moves (early). The best situation would be if a group of six or eight go away with 40 miles left and work together until the last lap.
“And if 7-Eleven has more than one guy in the break, the only way we won’t win is if we do something really stupid or we’re really tired.”
As it turned out, Phinney’s assessment of the race was close on target.