July 5, 1986. Alex Stieda stood on the start line of his first road stage of the Tour de France in a tight-fitting 7-Eleven skinsuit; he had even pinned his numbers on tight, track-style. Nowadays, pro racers get the mickey taken out of them for pitching up in a one-piece, so you can imagine the reaction back then. His team-mates, fellow callow newbies, were not impressed.
“They were like ‘oh no, what is Alex doing? We’re trying to fit in and be part of the peloton, and he’s trying to look different,’” Stieda says. “I didn’t mind standing out in the crowd.” When a life-changing opportunity is in the offing, you have to be ready – and Stieda was. By the end of the day, he would swap that skinsuit for an even more eye-catching number.
Twenty kilometres into the race, the Canadian struck out, feeling good. “Guys were spread out all across a four-lane road, rolling at 30kmh. I’m second line. I reached out to the guy in front to come by – that’s what you do, tap him so he moves over. I just touched the guy and it was like skin on hipbone through the lycra. Man, that guy is skinny. It was Bernard Hinault. So I’m tapping Hinault’s butt to let me through and he’s like ‘eh?’
“Going out of Paris, the road was kind of windy. If you’re out of sight, you’re out of mind. I’d gone through a turn, looked back, couldn’t see the peloton and went as hard as I could for that moment. Boom! Within a couple of minutes, I was out of sight. Gone. And they didn’t know who we were, didn’t know our strengths.”
7-Eleven was an unheralded American team invited by the organisers, having caught the eye at the 1986 Giro six weeks’ earlier, and Stieda was especially handy at long track races and criteriums. With the rest of the bunch wanting to save their legs for the afternoon TTT – this was an era where split-day Tour stages were still a thing – he took his opportunity in this whistle-stop 80-kilometre morning stage to Sceaux.
“I said ‘this is it, I’m gonna go for it.’ It didn’t really matter if I was going to finish the Tour de France, I didn’t even think about that afternoon’s team time trial or the next day. I was just treating it like a one-day race.
“There were three time bonus sprints in 80 kilometres, which would never happen today. I was our best-placed guy after the prologue, which happened to be pursuit distance, flat, with criterium corners which I completely railed ’cos of my experience. I was like 17th – I forget exactly – on GC. Close.
“I got three time bonus sprints, I got 15 seconds off and I was the virtual yellow jersey on the road. A break caught me, which included Phil Anderson, with ten kilometres to go. Phil tapped me on the leg and said ‘hey mate, you’re in the jersey,’” says Steida, affecting an Aussie accent.
“I was like ‘holy shit, Phil Anderson just talked to me.’ Then I realised what he said. I’d had an inkling from my team director already.”
Mission Yellow Jersey was on. Stieda held the break together by chasing every late attack and kept the pace as fast as he could, holding off the bunch behind by two seconds.
He had done it. Jonathan Boyer was North America’s first Tour finisher in 1981, Greg LeMond finished second overall and was the continent’s first stage winner in 1985. But Alex Stieda, the son of a sawmill-builder from Vancouver, was the unlikely first one to don the hallowed yellow jersey, 24 hours into his Tour debut.
“Phil Liggett called me the first American to wear the yellow jersey. I corrected him live on TV, I said ‘actually Phil, I’m Canadian.’”
His directeur sportif Jim Ochowicz landed a kiss on his cheek on the podium, where Stieda donned five jerseys – everything except the points leader’s – after his escape.
His tenure in the lead of the Tour de France lasted a few hours. That afternoon’s team time trial saw several punctures and a crash for 7-Eleven before the leg-weary Stieda was dropped by his team-mates.
However, he kept the polka-dot jersey for several days. “One day, I was sprinting against a guy for category-four mountain points. I look across and think ‘who is that guy?’ He had DCL on his glasses. I looked up his race number afterwards and went ‘no wonder I couldn’t win it!’ It was Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle.”
7-Eleven set the race’s first week alight, as Davis Phinney won a sprint into Liévin on stage three. The American arrivistes had well and truly arrived.
Stieda was an outgoing character in the bunch: he played the harmonica and whipped out a toy water gun one day. But his long-time party piece, exhibited on many criterium start lines, was a front wheelie: slamming on the front brake, lifting up off the ground and holding it for a few seconds.
While Greg LeMond became North America’s first Tour winner that same year, Stieda slipped to the opposite end of the pack. He squeaked inside the time limit on the day to Alpe d’Huez and made it to Paris, second-to-last.
That 1986 Tour de France was the apogee of his career, the first and last time Stieda raced the sport’s pre-eminent event. Ironically, North America’s first maillot jaune was far from a textbook Tour contender. “I should have focused more on what I was good at: races like Paris-Rouen and the Tour of Belgium, where there’s crosswinds, short hills and the weather’s shitty. I was a 1. The Tour de France was way over my head. I’m not a climber.”
A handy track racer with bunch craft galore, Stieda couldn’t ignore an underlying obstacle in the mainland’s racing culture. “I was racing in Europe ’86, 87, 88, but I realised I had to go where I knew I could win without taking drugs. So I ended up racing more in the States and doing the criteriums and shorter road races, where I was gonna be able to win some races, at least in the last few years of my career.
“It was bittersweet. But what is still amazing is that our guys who stayed in Europe on 7-Eleven, which turned into Motorola, guys like Bob Roll, I know he didn’t take any drugs.
“I know Andy Hampsten didn’t. Davis Phinney didn’t. They were able to still do that and be competitive on some days. They were able to find the moment when they had that good day and rise above. But other days, they were suffering, no two ways about it.”
Recounting his memories in a London coffee shop a few summers ago, Stieda is akin to Hampsten: eloquent, intelligent and a 55-year-old who could pass for ten years younger. Now an IT salesman, his love of cycling and fitness is unchanged; this is a man who has finished several Cape Epics in recent years.
The tale of the Tour de France yellow jersey is just the best-known chapter in Stieda’s lively story. We’ve included a collection of the Canadian’s rollicking anecdotes.
On racing Paris-Roubaix with 24 hours’ notice
I was racing in Texas the day before Roubaix, then I got handed a ticket – to fly from Austin to Paris that night to do Paris-Roubaix tomorrow because 7-Eleven needed nine guys on the start line.
I flew into Charles de Gaulle at some ungodly hour, got driven straight to Compiegne, had breakfast with the team and got on the bike. I made it to the first feed zone that year.
On his first Belgian lodgings
It was in Ghent. If you touched the metal door handle when it was raining, you got an electric shock. You had to wash in a minute basin and there was an outhouse in the back. When it got full, the farmer came by with a suction pipe and ran it through the kitchen to suck the waste out. And of course, it was leaking in the middle of the pipe joint in the kitchen…
On improved testing
The best thing that’s happened in cycling in the last 25 years is the doping controls. You could look and say ‘oh, the riders have no rights now, they’re being tested so often.’ But you know what? It has to be that way. Because the sport is so bloody hard, the temptation to take a short cut is so great.
On his lost British win
At the 1989 Milk Race, I was in a break with five guys into Llandrindod Wells. I attacked them right before the final corner. Came out of it, big gap, crossed the line, two hands in the air. I won the stage. And the freakin’ commissaire says ‘no, no, no.’ Because it was not a full pro race, a pro-am, you’re not allowed to take both hands off the bars. I was relegated.
Crazy, this cycling game. But the amount of press I got from that: I was getting calls from people in Canada; the press was trying to find me in the hotel.
On 7-Eleven directeur sportif Jim Ochowicz
His nickname was Sergeant Rock. Because there’s a World War Two comic book hero with a big cigar, always the guy leading troops into battle. There’s a song by XTC: Sergeant Rock is going to help you. Naturally, that was our theme tune.
It’s still such an amazing sport. With all the doping things that have gone on in – let’s call it the EPO era – you’d think, in some respects, it could have fallen flat out of space.
His wife Sam Stieda on first encountering pro cycling in 1988
I had come over for six weeks to visit Alex. I get there and the team director says to Alex ‘you’re doing the Tour of Europe – and she can’t come.’ My place was not there. So I end up having to go to Como and hanging out with Massimo [Testa], the team doctor, for a week.
When Alex was about to leave [one race], I had to come dressed like a soigneur, pretending to be one, and take his bags to the car so none of the other team-mates would think I was the girlfriend.
The Belgian mentality was ‘girlfriends here? What are you thinking?’