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Eric Heiden’s five speed-skating gold medals at the 1980 Winter Olympics established him as one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all time. Only a few months after that historic feat he set his sights on cycling and made the 1980 Summer Olympics team in the kilometer time trial on the track. How a guy who was so fast over one kilometer ended up riding 4,000 kilometers through France at the 1986 Tour de France is a testament to his incredible athletic versatility.
Words: Bruce Hildenbrand | Images: Graham Watson
Heiden, who traded his bicycle for a scalpel and became an orthopedic surgeon after hanging up his cleats, still rides his bike, a lot. He has also been a team doctor for a number of professional cycling teams. He recently talked with us about his ride at the Tour 34 years ago.
When did riding the Tour become a goal for you? It started for me in my late-teens and riding a bicycle mostly for training for speed skating. As a kid, racing a bike, you wanted to be like Eddy Merckx in the Tour de France. That was the big goal or dream that most people who raced bikes had at that time.
How did riding the 1985 Giro prepare you for the Tour? As a team, we learned about the infrastructure you were going to need to survive the Tour. We knew that we were going to need eight or nine riders, whatever the team requirements were, but I think we got a good understanding of the soigneurs…the mechanics…the medical staff… the directors…what was going to be involved from that standpoint more than anything.
Before the Tour, what did you think would be the most difficult thing you would have to overcome? I had to learn how to gauge my efforts. It was understanding that every day was not an individual race. There was going to be a price you paid every day that you were never going to be able repay at the end of the day by resting, having a meal, etcetera. The next day you were going to be digging a little deeper than the day before. You just had to understand that all your efforts were going to add up and you were going to have to pay the bill at the end of the Tour.
You commentated on the 1985 Tour for CBS. How did what you saw in ’85 prepare you for riding it in 1986? It scared the heck out of me watching what was going on and knowing that potentially we would be doing this the next year. It gave me a whole new sense of how hard we were all going to have to work if we were going to participate in this race.
What was your role on the Tour team? I was the classic domestique. My goal was to try to help the GC guys and give them the best opportunity. And also to give a good opportunity to Davis Phinney, who was our go-to sprinter.
How well did you feel you and the team prepared for the Tour? I think we prepared pretty well. Looking back, I think we could have done more, like spent more time in Europe racing like the Tour de Suisse and that kind of stuff leading up. At that time, I don’t think we really appreciated the pre-Tour preparation that you understand now. We rode a lot together. We spent time at altitude. We were in Colorado, in Boulder, riding…but we were naïve. There was more we could have done but we just did not know what we were getting into.
How was the team chemistry? I think the team chemistry was good. I think that one of the things that, in general, made 7-Eleven so successful was that we were a good group of friends. Even now, it’s been decades since we have all raced together, but when we get together it’s like we haven’t been apart all that long. That’s all part of that team chemistry and a lot of it has to do with [ Jim] Ochowicz identifying riders who could work together and were willing to explore the opportunities that existed and do stuff which, for a lot of us, was outside our comfort zone.
Did you really bring your schoolbooks to the Tour to study? Oh yeah. For me, it was a good way to sort of escape the reality of what we were in; and spending a couple of hours studying was a great way for me to relax from the Tour.
What was it like being the first American team at the Tour? In one sense there was a lot riding on our shoulders, because it was an American team and people were really looking up to us. We wanted to hold our own. When we were racing, we were probably not given as much respect as we warranted… but then you had Davis winning a stage. You had Alex taking the yellow and a bunch of other jerseys on the first day. I think a lot of the European peloton looked at us and questioned what we were doing, but by the end they understood that we had good skills and abilities which warranted us being there. By the end of the Tour they were much more accepting of us as a team. And the other teams started to understand the chemistry of what made 7-Eleven successful and as a consequence you had riders asking if they could be part of the experience.
Do any stages or incidents from the Tour stand out in your mind? I can remember a couple of things. I don’t know if you remember, but [Greg] LeMond was pretty sick one day. Watching that guy grit his teeth and continue racing even though he was sick as a dog and holding his own. Another one was the first day we were in the mountains and riding down what looked to be sort of a blind canyon. All of a sudden you looked up to the right and saw switchbacks filled with people and you are thinking to yourself, “Oh my god, we have been racing for a week already, I am dead tired and this is the first of many climbs to come.” I was thinking, “Boy, I hope I am not in over my head.”
You are not a renowned climber. What got you through the Tour’s mountain stages? At that time, weight-wise, I was probably 80 kilograms, so probably 175 or 180 pounds, something like that. So I was not a good climber; but there was usually a core group of guys who were sort of the 80-kilograms-and-over group and everybody kind of befriended each other. We would look at the time limit and make some calculations. In the mountains our goal was just to make it in the time limit and not go any harder than that, because you had to save energy for the next day.
It was about understanding your abilities and what the goals were for the team and making sure that you didn’t overdo it in the mountains and that you could survive for another day. Even when you were surviving you were hauling. You watch races today and you think to yourself, “There was a point in my life when I could climb like that.” And those guys go fast. Even the slow guys go fast. Impressive.
What happened to you descending the Col du Galibier in the Alps? It was the last day in the Alps. I was good about wearing a helmet. I understood the importance of protecting your head and I had invested already in an education, so I was one of the first guys to be wearing a hard-shell helmet. Those helmets were not well ventilated so I would take it off and hang it on my handlebars when I thought the occasion was safe enough to do that. Going up that climb [south side of the Galibier] I hit a bump and my helmet fell off my handlebars. There were more [helmets] in the car or the trailer and it was just like, I will pick another one up at the end of the day again and have one for tomorrow. Unfortunately, I did not have my helmet on. I think if I had had my helmet on with that crash I probably could have gotten up. But I bumped my head hard and did not have a good understanding of where I was at the time.
How difficult was it for you to abandon the Tour? It wasn’t good because you are almost there—I think it was the 18th stage. The first thing I remember was waking up in the back of an ambulance. Then I have some memories of sort-of stuck in one of these little alpine hospitals that basically had two beds. And then [team doctor] Max [Testa] coming the next day to pick me up and make sure I am okay and then meeting up with the team. I believe the next day was a rest day. I was disappointed, but at that level you are with the team for a day and they are eager to get you out of there, which I think is good for the rest of the team that’s working hard. They don’t want somebody sitting around sort-of enjoying themselves. So, they get you out of there and the next thing I know I am back on a plane heading to the U.S.
Do you have any regrets about not finishing the Tour? There is a little bit of regret, but I was successful as a skater. I thought I was pretty successful as a rider. I had something to fall back on, which was my medical career, so getting to the finish was not going to be a life-changing thing for me. I knew I was going to wrap things up at the end of the year. I felt fortunate for the opportunity to race in the Tour de France.
Do you have any lasting impressions from riding the Tour? I learned that bicycle racing is a hard sport. There is no way to hide at the Tour de France if you want to finish. You have to put in an effort every day. It gave me an understanding and a lot of respect for bicycle racers. That’s why I continue to enjoy working with a lot of the teams, because I understand how hard those guys are working. I appreciate the fact that they are working and putting in an honest day…every one of those guys.