Phinney And Kiefel Recall 7
Twenty five years ago, the American 7 Eleven squad ventured to Europe early in 1985 to embark on the team’s first bloc omega watches of racing in its debut professional season, and it was set to learn the hard way the ups and downs of racing in the European peloton.
The team opened its European campaign at Etoile de Bess then competed in such events as the Tour M Trofeo Laigueglia in February, then Milan Turin and Tirreno Adriatico in early March.
There was one more race which stood between the American team’s inaugural foray to the Continent and a trip back to the United States: Milan San Remo, the upstart squad’s first true Classic, which took place on March 16, 1985.
“It had been such a tough spring for us since we were a first year pro team,” Phinney told Cyclingnews. “It was really a fight for survival in all ways. You had to get to the race, and then all day you’re battling for position and respect, and then you get to the hotel and you’re starved, cold, and hungry.
“Every day you’re waking up and it’s more bad weather. This was way before teams had buses and laundry equipment, we’re still sink washing our clothes a lot of times and then your stuff never dries and just gets more and more grey. And your mood’s also more and more grey.”
The team was not without its mentors, however, as Belgian professional No Dejonckheere, riding for the Spanish Teka squad, visited the team in its hotel the evening prior to Milan San Remo. Dejonckheere had finished Milan San Remo in eighth place each of the previous two years and Phinney recalled the sage advice the experienced Belgian provided the American neo pros.
“He said, ‘You’ve got to eat A LOT, it’s a long, long day and you don’t want to run out of energy’. And after 160km you have to be at the front before the road narrows for the climb of the Passo del Turchino,” said Phinney.
Phinney took the advice as gospel, and dutifully stuffed his jersey pockets with panini for sustenance, so much so that his rain cape could barely fit over his torso to protect from the rain buffeting the peloton as it left the Duomo in Milan.
As the race rolled along in its opening kilometres, Phinney devoured a panino every 10km like clockwork, fueling his body for the more than seven hours in the saddle facing the 25 year old neo pro. Much to the shock of Phinney, however, a certain Irish professional took exception to the American’s eating habits.
“After about 60km Sean Kelly pulls up next to me while I’m stuffing my face. My gut is so full that my knees are banging into it while I’m pedalling. Kelly says, ‘What are you doing? You’re eating like a pig! You’ll never make the finish like that’.
“I was just mortified, sitting there with a mouth full of food which I promptly spit out. I threw away all of my panini because Sean Kelly said I was eating like a pig.”
Relieved of all his food, the race continued for Phinney as the peloton sped onwards to its first decisive juncture at the foot of the Passo del Turchino. Mindful of Dejonckheere’s second piece of advice about being at the front, although simultaneously wondering about the wisdom of it since Kelly seemingly debunked the Belgian’s first bit of insider knowledge, Phinney nonetheless fought his way to the front as if he was about to contest a field sprint.
But then disaster struck.
“As we came into the little town before the Turchino started I was on the far right side, in the second row, and we’re just flying along. There’s a sharp left turn and the pack drifted a little bit wide to the point where I was pushed off the omega watches road. I went flying off the road, crashed into this chain fence separating the road from the sidewalk and dislocated my finger.
“Eric Heiden saw me, stopped and I was just in misery. I told him, ‘Pull my finger’ but I have these thick winter gloves on and he couldn’t get a good grip. Finally, he pulls it out, which was somewhat of a relief, but minutes have gone by and I’ve immediately just checked out in my mind. It’s my first big race and I had completely failed.”
At the Etoile de Bess Phinney had nearly won the final stage and he later finished fourth at Milan Turin. Only three days before Milan San Remo a jubilant Phinney had finished second to Eric Vanderaerden in the final stage of Tirreno Adriatico. The previous day the American was tickled to find himself named as a dark horse favourite for Milan San Remo by Gazzetta dello Sport.
Now, a dejected Phinney soon found himself riding alone, with nearly the entire race caravan having passed him by, having given Heiden the green light to chase down the field without him.
The Turchino pass is a critical part of the race. Photo Roberto Bettini
Stranded on the autostrada
7 Eleven’s director Richard Dejonckheere, No brother, soon pulled alongside Phinney in a team car and gave him his rain bag chock full of extra clothing. Richard, too, was in low spirits, seeing one of his best riders out of contention. The Belgian told Phinney to soft pedal along until the broom wagon arrived and then sped away to re join the race convoy.
Phinney’s first order of business was to figure out how to transport his rain bag, which was meant to be carried as hand luggage, without said bag swinging into his front wheel. Phinney decided to put it on like a backpack, an uncomfortable option which hindered the circulation in his arms, but at least he could hold the bars with both hands as he climbed the Passo del Turchino.
Phinney soon finds himself with three companions, a Dane, Spaniard and Belgian, all laden with their respective rain bags, all growing short on humour as they descended the Turchino and found themselves riding along the coast with still no sign of the broom wagon. They passed through the empty feed zone, with only the detritus of cast aside water bottles and feed bags as evidence that a race came through, and estimated that they’re at least 30 minutes behind.
“Here I am at this big race, Milan San Remo, off the back with three other knuckleheads, still riding with race numbers on. I’m dirty, wet, cold and hungry, because I omega watches have no food, and we’re still a long way from San Remo. We realized that we’re screwed. from Monaco, I have to be on it, and I am going now’. He just put it in his biggest gear and took off. The Spanish guy looked at the Belgian and me and s omega watches aid, ‘I’m going with him’ and he jumped onto the Dane’s wheel.”
Realizing that he and the Belgian would require at least two hours of hard riding to reach the finish, Phinney convinced his fellow straggler that their only hope was to veer off course to the nearby autostrada and hitchhike to San Remo.
“I was delusional and definitely out of my head,” said Phinney. “This was well before cell phones, well before radios and we had no ability to communicate with anybody at the finish.
“We got off the course, rode up this hill to the autostrada, but we get stopped at the toll booth. The guy in the toll booth looked at us like two aliens have just landed from Mars. His dialect was just impenetrable. I spoke fairly good pidgin Italian but all I could do is show him our numbers and try to explain how we got lost. He just gave us this look of, ‘Oh my God, who are you people?’
Unable to get onto the autostrada, Phinney and the Belgian proceeded to stick out their thumbs and unsuccessfully inquired of each vehicle arriving at the toll booth, “San Remo?”
“Of course nobody has ever seen this kind of spectacle before, two pros thumbing it at a toll booth, and it’s just getting later and later,” said Phinney.