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Certain dates in cycling history have earned far greater importance than others. Some that come to mind are July 1, which saw the start of the first Tour de France in 1903; January 2, the gray day when malaria took the life of Italy’s campionissimo Fausto Coppi at age 40 in 1960; and September 4, when Greg LeMond became the first non-European to win the world pro road race title in 1983.
Those dates of significance have now been joined by this past Sunday’s February 7, which already marked the exact 25th anniversary of the European debut of America’s first pro team, 7-Eleven, and its star sprinter Davis Phinney, in 1985. By coincidence, his son Taylor Phinney made his debut against elite professionals at the Tour of Qatar this February 7, which also saw Britain’s first major pro team, Sky, field dual stars Edvald Boasson Hagen and Brad Wiggins for the first time. Sadly, on this same day, the popular former classics rider Franco Ballerini died in a tragic accident at a car rally in Italy.
The 7-Eleven debut
A quarter-century ago, there was little fanfare for the 7-Eleven riders when they showed up at the four-day Étoile de Bessèges in southern France. The Europeans had accepted the presence in the peloton of Americans LeMond and Jonathan Boyer, and Australians Phil Anderson and Michael Wilson, mainly because these pioneers were racing on French, Dutch and Italian pro teams. But the arrivals in their midst of a bunch of blond, blue-eyed “cowboys” was somewhat different.
But instead of them creating crashes, as the Europeans feared, Phinney and such colleagues as Ron Kiefel, Jeff Bradley, Jeff Pierce, Eric Heiden and Andy Hampsten heralded the start of cycling’s globalization. Their Bessèges race opened with a 2.1km prologue time trial won by then-reigning Tour de France champion Laurent Fignon, so stage 1 on February 8 was the 7-Eleven squad’s first “real” race.
It was a 124km circuit race at Lunel, a small town between Nîmes and Montpellier, and ended in a wild field sprint dominated by the mighty Dutch team of the era, Panasonic. The Americans attempted to get Phinney into the placings, but the boys in green, red and white didn’t have the numbers or the horsepower to match Panasonic — which handed Belgian Eric Vanderaerden the first of his 24 victories that year.
Phinney was seventh across the line, but there was no photo finish at the race, and he wasn’t listed in the top 10. The American wasn’t upset though, saying, “I’m just happy to be sprinting against the European pros. I’ve dreamed about this day for a long time.”
On the final day of the race, February 10, 1985, Phinney took an official fourth place to end up eighth overall, while his fellow Coloradan and 1984 Olympic gold medalist Alexi Grewal, who was starting his pro career on Panasonic, took fifth overall. Grewal got homesick and didn’t last out the season with the Dutch team, while 7-Eleven went on to race that year’s Giro d’Italia, with Kiefel and Hampsten both winning stages and Phinney taking eight top-10s.
Twenty-five years later
The 7-Eleven team’s pioneering efforts were an important factor in pro cycling expanding from its European base. The season now opens in Australia (at the Tour Down Under) and the Persian Gulf (with the Tour of Qatar and upcoming Tour of Oman). At the same time, the Bessèges race (which ended Sunday with victory for French sprinter Samuel Dumoulin) has become a first big rendezvous for France’s eight, mostly minor pro teams, while similar stage races get the season under way in Italy and Spain.
So it was pure coincidence that the 19-year-old Taylor Phinney — leading his Trek-Livestrong under-23 development squad — would make his debut against the world’s top pro teams on February 7 in Qatar. In a flat and windy 8.2km team time trial, Trek-Livestrong placed 15th of the 16 teams. On his Twitter account, Phinney wrote: “TTT was not so hot today … I felt great and did all that I could.”
It was a harsh baptism for the U.S. development team, finishing 39 seconds behind the winning Team Sky (led by Boasson Hagen and Wiggins). It put Phinney in 98th place before the first road stage on Monday, where the intensity of today’s pro racing made the going far tougher than it was for his dad 25 years ago.
Even Team Sky had a hard time in the desert winds of Qatar, with neither race leader Boasson Hagen nor any of his teammates making it into the front two echelons, and ending the stage 10 minutes back. The young Phinney’s verdict on his first experience in the pro peloton was: “Broke a spoke in the most crucial part of the race but fought back to a big group … and managed to finish with likes of Cancellara, Boasson Hagen … can’t complain.”
A tragic loss
While the 2010 racing season was getting under way all over the world, former Italian racer and national coach Franco Ballerini, 45, was competing in a motor rally in Tuscany when he was killed after the car he was co-piloting crashed into the wall of a house.
Most pro bike racers love driving fast cars, and Ballerini was no exception. Europeans are especially enamored with rallies, which usually feature timed sections on dirt roads. At the time of the accident, the Italian was navigating for rally driver Alessandro Ciardi, who remains in a coma at the Pistoia hospital where Ballerini died.
Ballerini was an exemplary professional who wasn’t a naturally gifted athlete; he trained and worked hard for every success. His breakthrough as a racer came in his fifth season as a pro, in September 1990, when on the heels of taking the Belgian classic Paris-Brussels, he won the then-Canadian World Cup race, the Grand Prix des Amériques in Montréal, finishing ahead of the big Swiss rider Thomas Wegmüller and the young Belgian Sammie Moreels.
In a 16-year pro career, Ballerini became a classics specialist, twice winning Paris-Roubaix and taking podium spots at races as diverse as the Tour of Flanders and Tour of Lombardy. His great tactical prowess was showcased in his nine years as coach and selector of the Italian pro road squad that won four world championships and an Olympic title.
Ballerini’s funeral takes place on Tuesday afternoon at a church in Casalguidi, not far from his hometown of Larciano. His thousands of fans will remember that he died on February 7.