Chapter Seven: The Coors Classic
Although the 7-Eleven team achieved remarkable and consistent success in its first year, it was not a free ride. One glaring exception to the team’s relative dominance was the 1981 Coors Classic stage race. Team co-founder Jim Ochowicz recalls the team as being “hot and cold. We were either really good or really bad. And we were really bad at the Coors in ’81.” Indeed, the race would always be a place of mixed fortunes for the team, a playing field on which it would achieve some of its greatest results, and its most stinging defeats. “It was the only event we had difficulty with,” team member Jeff Bradley said flatly.
The Coors, set against the spectacular backdrop of the Colorado Rockies, was the closest thing that America had to the epic, mountainous stage races that defined the sport in Europe. The race was founded in 1975 as the Red Zinger Bicycle Classic, a promotional vehicle for the famous brand of spicy tea. In 1979, the event was purchased for $1 by its promoter, Michael Aisner. The race would become synonymous with Aisner, a dynamo of a man who talked in a staccato narrative that was as exhausting as it was entertaining. He enlisted the Coors Brewing Company, based in Golden, Colorado, as title sponsor. During the next eight years, Aisner and the 7-Eleven team would become inextricably bound together in what many still consider the most successful and dramatic stage race in American history.
In 1981 the 7-Elevens set out to dominate the race in a way that would befit their emerging reputation as America’s premier team. Ochowicz rented a spacious house in the resort town of Breckenridge prior to the race so the boys could do epic training rides, acclimate to the 9,000-foot altitude, and recover with massage and therapy in the evenings. They hunkered down as if the Olympic Games had already arrived. “We trained our asses off,” said rider Ron Hayman. “We did every big climb over 9,000 feet.” Roger Young and Danny Van Haute, who were considered track riders and were not slated to do the Coors, rode their single-speed bikes until they expired, then dragged themselves into the team van.
But it was all too much. What started as admirable focus and dedication soon became consumptive excess. The boys’ very motivation contained the seeds of its own demise. When race day finally arrived, “We couldn’t get out of our own way,” said Hayman. “Three weeks later I had the best form of my life — but not during the race.” For his part, Ochowicz had learned a valuable lesson. “We were there too long, and we trained too hard,” he said. “The guys were tired.”
The event itself comprised 11 stages, a mix of time trials, criteriums, and long road races that conveyed its increasingly international flavor. Race director Aisner had a remarkable sense of promotion and, for a nonathlete, an even more remarkable sense of what made for high drama in a bicycle race. One year after the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics, he arranged an entry for the powerful and well-prepared Russian team. “When I first announced that the Russians were coming, I got letters from racers, who were friends, who said the Russians will come and take all the prize money away. They said, ‘Why would you do this? It will ruin the race.’ My silent answer was, ‘then get off your asses and beat them!’ One racer who responded positively, and said ‘Bring ’em on,’ was Greg LeMond. He said, ‘I will show them what wheel to get on.’”
Indeed, LeMond, fresh from his first season racing as a pro in Europe with the French powerhouse Renault/Gitane team, won two stages and the overall race by almost five minutes. It was an almost single-handed display of dominance, with Soviet riders shadowing him in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. Greg Demgen was the top-placed 7-Eleven rider, in a dismal 16th place.
The race was particularly frustrating for Hayman, who a year earlier had won two stages as part of a composite team with race winner Jock Boyer, one of the first U.S. riders to make it as a European pro. (Interestingly, Eric Heiden’s sister, Beth, had won the women’s event that year.) The race was the first of many encounters with what would be an enduring challenge for the team: the split focus on American-style racing, with its abbreviated distances and frenetic criteriums, and the epic, vertiginous demands of a European-style stage race. The Coors itself would experience this transition over the years. “The race was moving away from criteriums and more toward the mountains,” said Ochowicz. “We didn’t have the right riders for that race, in terms of the whole race. We had a few that could do it, then we had others that just didn’t belong.”
It was a division of labor that would never be resolved in any simple or lasting way, as the landscape of American racing shifted as fast as the composition of the team. Ochowicz would juggle the two variables over the next 10 years, never with complete success. In a few short years, when resources permitted, he would attack the problem by creating two, nearly exclusive teams to meet the challenge. But in this initial foray, the team had foundered.