Eric Heiden is now nearly 30 years removed by his pro cycling career. But the longtime physician for BMC Racing was preparing for another stage of another bike race at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and he was ready to talk baseball.
Heiden, who rode in the 1986 Tour de France with the 7-Eleven team and competed as a pro for seven seasons, has lived in Park City for the past 10 years, where he has an orthopedic practice. Heiden’s wife Karen is also an orthopedic surgeon, and the couple has two children, Zoe and Connor.
“My dad used to call baseball a ‘kill grass’ sport,” said a chuckling Heiden, who arrived at the 11th annual Tour of Utah after spending time with his 11-year-old at a baseball tournament. “But now that I have gotten involved with my son, you realize there are so many layers of that sport.
“I don’t know if the guys who originally invented baseball, if they really understood all of the nuances. It’s been fun learning the game and it’s been fun watching the coaches and the skills they teach the kids.”
In many ways, Heiden, 57, is teaching as well as practicing medicine with cyclists who weren’t born yet when Heiden won five speed skating gold medals in the 1980 Olympics. And while they’ve likely heard of the 7-Eleven team as the first American team to compete in the Tour de France, most don’t know Heiden was part of the iconic squad. He’s just the team doctor they see at domestic races.
“In the beginning, it’s sometimes hard to get inside their heads,” said Heiden who also worked for years as a team physician for the Sacramento Kings in the NBA and is a longtime Olympic speed skating coach. “It’s difficult to get to know who they are and develop a close relationship.
“But then we will say, ‘Oh, you raced for the 7-Eleven team and you race in the Tour de France and you race in the Giro. Then all of a sudden there’s that connection that makes things go a lot easier.”
As an athlete and physician, Heiden has been involved in cycling for more than 35 years. He’s seen major changes in the sport from both perspectives. The science of cycling has greatly advanced and the athletes are treated better.
“I think there’s a lot more exercise sports science that’s involved with the training and preparation of these guys,” Heiden said. “And the amount of money that’s invested in the riders and they way they treat the riders.
“In the past, you just traveled in a car; you never had a bus. There were times when we would stay in a school house and in a room [where] they would put 20 cots. Or the team would be living in a firehouse. Nowadays, they put them up in fairly nice hotels, and they have chefs who travel with them. The stature has gone up, but it’s still a blue-collar sport compared to some of the big sports.”
Like the cyclists who Heiden mentors and heals, his son’s baseball team doesn’t know much about their teammate’s famous father.
Heiden explained: “One of the kids whose dad has been very instrumental in organizing the team said to him, ‘You know, Connor’s dad is a very famous athlete.’ His son looked at him and said, ‘Does he have his own video game?’
“I guess if I don’t have my own video game, I’m not famous.”