The first stage of the Tour de France marked an historic achievement for North American cycling: Alex Steida, Team 7-Eleven’s Canadian rider, has become the first North American ever to wear the yellow jersey of the leader of the Tour de France.
At 85 km, the stage from Nanterre to Sceaux was relatively flat and short. “I thought, it’s 85K, which was as far as any crit I’d done,” said Stieda. “And there were time bonuses along the way. It was a classic North American–style race; just get away and get primes.”
And since it all felt familiar, he decided to use familiar armaments. “I showed up at the starting line with what I needed to carry for 85K,” he said. “Just a couple of water bottles.” He also wore a skinsuit, which earned some offended looks from the European peloton.
Once under way, Stieda noticed that the “peloton was going slow, just watching each other and cruising.”
Armed with the confidence of placing a solid 21st in yesterday’s 4.6 km time trial, Stieda said he hatched a plan. “Maybe I could just go up the road and they wouldn’t chase,” he said. “Some guys ride up the road to pee, and they let them go. I thought, ‘Hey, I’ll do that.’” At 22 kilometers, Stieda made his move. Teammate Chris Carmichael remembers looking over and seeing him “attacking, wearing a skinsuit, with his hat turned the other way. Everyone is looking over, wondering, ‘Who is that guy? Is he even in the race?’”
Indeed, Stieda saw his move as clandestine. “I just stayed in the saddle and went as hard as I could. If you had seen me from behind, you wouldn’t think I was accelerating.” Of course, he had one other great advantage, which was that no one was inclined to take a North American rider seriously in the world’s most prestigious bike race. “They thought we were all American jokers,” said Stieda. “I was out of sight, out of mind. Pretty soon I had three minutes, four minutes, five minutes.”
Along the way there were several sprints for time bonuses. Stieda won each of them in turn, riding alone, subtracting a critical 36 seconds from his overall time.
Back in the field, the 7-Elevens found Stieda’s escapade to be mildly entertaining and a positive start to their first Tour. But gradually, there was a collective epiphany. At one point Jeff Pierce turned to Eric Heiden and said, “You know, if Alex stays out there for two or three more sprints, he stands a chance of getting the jersey, because he had a pretty good time trial. He’s pretty far up there.”
The very notion that a North American rider in the first full day of his first Tour de France could garner cycling’s highest honor seemed entirely implausible—if not laughable. “Eric looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, right. . . .’”
Jim Ochowicz, of course, immediately saw the developing possibilities. To get the race lead, he reasoned, “You have to do a good prologue. Then you have to have the opportunity to get a little time. If the combination works out, you get the jersey.” And that’s exactly what Stieda’s escapade was leading to.
Meanwhile, Stieda was “burying himself,” in his words, to stay off the front. Eventually he was caught by a small group, including Australian star Phil Anderson. “He was a guy we looked up to, as someone who had broken through—an English-speaking guy,” said Stieda. “He said, ‘Alex, you’re in the jersey.’” At that moment, the possibility of the maillot jaune was less consequential than the fact that “Phil Anderson was actually talking to me,” said Stieda.
At the finish, Stieda was 5th out of a six-rider breakaway. “I remember just crossing the line and looking back, and there was the main field, just going full bore, a wall of riders, eight lanes wide.”
To watch today’s televised recap of Stage 1 of the Tour de France, simply press play on the viewer below.
This was certainly an unpredictable day at the Tour. What will tomorrow hold? Please join us tomorrow for continued coverage of the 1986 Tour de France!
Coverage of today’s race news was adapted from Team 7-Eleven by Geoff Drake with Jim Ochowicz.