Friday, March 29, 2013

My Brush with Team 7-Eleven

I recently picked up a copy of Team 7-Eleven: How an Unsung Band of American Cyclists Took on the World--and Wonby Geoff Drake and Jim Ochowiz (the former team director). Those boys were a fun bunch -- quirky, enthusiastic, optimistic. Their high spirits keep the book lively throughout. I got to thinking about how I really missed the boat on them. But there is precedent on that...

My dad lived in Chicago in 1950, a senior in high school, home at night studying his American History like the good boy he was, while just across town from him -- a bus ride away -- Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf were nightly tearing off the roof and redefining the future of American music. Dad would grow up to be a ravenous fan of American music... but he never took that bus.

As a teen in 1978 New York City, I became a huge Yankees fan, going up to the stadium a few times a year and watching a ton of baseball on TV. I jumped for joy when they won and cried when they lost. But I entered the fold exactly six months after the mind-boggling Bucky Dent playoff game, which I'd barely noticed.

Finally, in the early 1980s, I had two years of all-consuming teen bike obsession. During that time, the 7-Eleven team was born, and promptly stood the American cycling world on its ear.  That iconic band of youngsters transformed the face of American bike racing, thanks to being the first U.S. team of professional cyclists, the first to compete on the Euro-pro scene (including the grand tours) and just generally a bunch of indomitable, handsome, cocksure heroes.

I don't have one memory of reading a news story about them at the time -- or even hearing the name of the team. It makes me sad.

However, I do have a one-degree-of-separation connection to the team, even if I didn't recognize it when it happened:

As a rabid sports fan, I was fully awake and aware for the historic 1980 Winter Olympics, and while I thrilled to the Miracle on Ice (and have worshipful drawings of the team in my old notebook to prove it), I was even more impressed by Eric Heiden. His unprecedented five individual golds certainly caught my attention, but it was his freight-train-like presence on the ice that kept me watching. He was really something to see.

Fast forward one year, past the alchemy of seeing the iconic cycling movie Breaking Away and also falling deeply in love with a new burgundy Saint Tropez ten-speed. One day, I read that Heiden had made the switch from two blades to two wheels, and I sat up and took notice. I eagerly scoured the papers for news of his exploits.

Finally, I learned that the man himself was going to be taking part in a bike race through Central Park and up Fifth Avenue. So close! I hied myself over there and camped out by the side of the road, my first time at a bike race. I'll never forget the thunderous blur of the pack whizzing by, the 10-second blizzard of human-generated wind and mechanical buzzing and guys yelling, and -- gone. Silence. Like they'd never been there.

But even more impressive was glimpsing Heiden himself after the race, casually leaning on his bike and chatting with someone, his mere physical presence radiating power and health.

I didn't go over to him. Hard to explain why, but it doesn't bother me to this day. I didn't have to shake hands with him, or hear him speak. He was a god -- descended from Olympus, for crying out loud -- and history has imbued us mortals with a genetic awareness that those who try to touch the gods had best be chosen, or they might get well and truly singed.

Heiden was the first superstar bike racer I ever laid eyes on, and though he never dominated that sport as he did speed skating, in my youthful, yearning eyes, it didn't matter. I didn't even know about Team 7-Eleven. I was focused on him, standing at the pinnacle of grace and power. I had managed to glimpse that summit up close.  I felt freakin' great.

Important things happen right next to us all the time. Sometimes they are just outside of our ken, but we discover them later, and fold them into our personal narrative, letting time and re-telling transform them into a vital key to who we are -- and who we were.

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