Today 35 years ago Canadian Alex Stieda captured five classification jerseys of the Tour de France, the yellow jersey, the polka dot, the multi-colored, the red and the white, on the second day of the 1986 Tour de France, becoming the first North American to lead the Tour de France.
Friday, 4 July 1986. Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris, France. Canadian 7-Eleven rider Alex Stieda was first to set off on the prologue of the 1986 Tour de France, a 4.6-kilometre contre-la-montre. Stieda rode it in 5’33”. Until another rider bettered that time, the Canadian was the virtual leader of the Tour de France, wearing an imaginary maillot jaune. It took more than a hour for someone to unseat him. That hour, that was just the starters in what was to prove to be a very important Tour for North American cycling.
Following manager Robin Morton’s assault on the Giro with a team of American professionals in 1984, she returned the following year to take on the Vuelta a Espana. And this time she wasn’t alone in taking on the European professionals, the 7-Elevens following in her wheel tracks and going to the Giro. Another year on, the 7-Elevens made the list of Tour teams, the last of 21 10-man teams chosen, the most riders the Tour had ever seen.
For most riders in their first Tour, even a virtual yellow jersey would be an accomplishment to cherish. But the next morning, on the first part of a split stage through the suburbs of Paris (Nanterre to Sceaux) Stieda pushed for more. At 85 kilometres, the distance to be raced was comparable to riding critériums back in the States. And, back in the US, the 7-Elevens were the kings of crits. Only 20 riders had bettered Stieda’s time the day before, and he was just 12 seconds off the lead. Stieda dared to dream.
Just over 20 kilometres into the ride, the Canuck rode off the front of the race. And kept riding, putting time into the peloton – three minutes at one point. Once more the Canadian was resplendent in a virtual maillot jaune. With just 17 kilometres to go a group of five riders caught up with him. In the dash for the line Stieda finished fifth of the six. Looking over his shoulder as he crossed the line, the Canuck could see the peloton stretched across the road, two seconds back, barrelling for the finish. So close.
Before the chasers had caught him, though, Stieda had picked up 36 seconds in bonifications. When the Tour’s bean counters totted everything up the Canadian 7-Eleven rider was found to be leading the Tour de France, eight seconds to the good. Before he could step up to the podium to collect North America’s first ever yellow jersey, Stieda had to step up to the podium to collect the white jersey as the best-placed young rider … then again to collect the red jersey for leader of the intermediate sprints category … then again to collect the polka-dot jersey of the best climber … and then again to collect the multi-coloured jersey for the leader of the combination category. By the time he finally stepped up to collect his yellow jersey, the guy was exhausted from all the walking he’d had to do and needed a new suitcase for all his new jerseys.
Then Stieda had to fulfil his media obligations, which were many, an American in yellow being a rarity and more and more English-speaking journalists adding the Tour to their summer schedules. So the Canadian wasn’t particularly prepared for the team time trial that followed in the afternoon. Nor, for that matter, were his teammates. The Americans hadn’t even driven the 56 kilometre course, all they’d done was look at it on a map — which proved to be the start of their undoing.
Just 18 kilometres into the ride, Davis Phinney led them round a downhill bend, clocking close to 70 kilometres an hour, only to find a traffic island splitting the road. Phinney made it past the obstacle safely, as did the first few riders behind him. Eric Heiden fluffed it and went down. In attempting to avoid him, several 7-Elevens either went down or scraped their tyres against the kerb and flatted. Chaos followed. The riders ahead didn’t know whether to press on or wait and regroup. Eventually, they waited and were all together and back into flying formation.
Then, at the front of the pace line, Alexi Grewal and Doug Shapiro got into a shouting match over who was wrongly positioned to ride the cross-wind blowing at them. Echelons weren’t big in US critérium racing and Shapiro – who’d ridden the Tour the previous year as part of the Kwantum squad – thought he knew more about them than Grewal did. Grewal, who’d ridden the previous season with Panasonic (Kwantum’s great rival), begged to differ. Still blasting along at nigh on 50 kilometres an hour, Shapiro sought to settle the argument by pulling his bidon from its cage and launching it at Grewal’s head.
Then Stieda got the hunger knock, the dreaded fringale and with still 20 kilometres to go the leader of the Tour de France couldn’t hold the wheel of the team-mate in front of him. The 7-Elevens slowed for him. Stieda still couldn’t hold the wheel in front. A decision had to be made: jettison the anchor or risk having the whole team go down with the ship. The big clock was tick-ticktocking and the 7-Elevens were in danger of being caught by the cut off, being sent home in disgrace with not even 150 of the race’s 4,000 kilometres run.
The order came to drop the anchor. Three hours after having donned the yellow jersey, aided by team-mates Chris Carmichael and Jeff Pierce, Stieda was left to beat the cut-off time while the rest of the team rode on. Stieda won, but lost four of his five jerseys in the process, retaining only the polka-dots.
Eventually Stieda finished in 120th place, in what was to be his only Tour de France. (Feargal McKay, The Complete Book of the Tour de France, London, Aurum Press, 2014, p.494-496)