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“I touched the butt of the guy in front of me. I couldn’t believe how skinny it was. It was just skin and bone on a hip. It was Bernard Hinault.” Canadian cycling pioneer Alex Stieda is talking about the moment before he attacked on the opening road stage of the 1986 Tour de France. “He opened up and let me through,” Stieda remembers. Seconds later, he was making history as he broke free, eventually picking up enough bonus seconds on the stage to grab the yellow jersey. We caught up with Stieda at his home in Alberta to look back on that historic day.
Alex, you were part of that magical 7-Eleven team, the first American squad to start the Tour de France. And more than that, you managed to take the yellow jersey on the opening road stage! What do you remember about that incredible day?
I’ll never forget the start of the Tour in 1986. I had number 210, the last number in the race. We were the last team selected for the race and I was maybe the last rider selected on the team. But for me it was definitely a plan to get into a break and go for the yellow jersey.
Really? At face value, that was just slightly ambitions for a Tour neophyte like yourself.
Well, the prologue was perfect for me. It was basically like an individual pursuit race. It was only 4 kilometers with four corners and when I warmed up I was like, “This is perfect. I can rail this!” I studied all of the corners, where you could go inside and where you could go outside. And I railed it! I was the best guy on our team and was even in the hot seat for a while. I ended up finishing 16th, only about 12 seconds behind the yellow jersey.
Okay, so you did have a plan…
Yeah. The next day started with an 80-kilometer road stage and I thought, “This is like a long criterium. I don’t need food. So why don’t I just wear my skinsuit?” I remember some of the guys on the team were looking at me sideways. We were trying to fit into the Euro scene and I was showing up to a road stage in the Tour de France with a skinsuit.
As we rolled out of Paris along these winding roads I knew that if I could get away and out of sight, I could really get a gap. I was in the second line and touched the butt of the guy in front of me. I couldn’t believe how skinny it was. It was just skin and bone on a hip. It was Bernard Hinault. He opened up and let me through. I rolled up the road a bit like I was going to pee…and as soon as I got out of sight a bit, I just dropped it in the 12, the biggest gear we had back then, and just went as hard as I could for like five minutes. Soon, I had a four-minute gap. Now we had four intermediate time bonus sprints. I went through two of them before a group caught up to me. Phil Anderson was in the group and he tapped me and said, “Alex, you are in the jersey!” I was like, “Holy shit, Phil Anderson just talked to me!” He was a legend to me. It was super cool.
Wow…and history was made.
Well, we were still about 30 kilometers out from the finish and everyone else was pretty fresh, so they started attacking. At the finish I was completely shattered. But I was in the yellow jersey. Actually, I got a lot of other jerseys. I had the red jersey [as most aggressive] and the combination jersey, both of which don’t exist any more. Then I had the white jersey [as best young rider] and the polka-dot jersey [as best climber]. The only jersey I didn’t get was the green jersey. Okay, I lost the yellow jersey in the team time trial that same afternoon, but I ended up hanging onto the polka-dot jersey for five days or so. What an experience!
You were born in Vancouver, Alex. Where do you live now?
Well, I’ve lived here in Edmonton since 1997. The winters here range from zero to minus 30 so I ride Zwift three times a week for an hour and two hours, and then do some cross-country skiing and ski mountaineering. I work in the IT industries, but I work from home, so I have time to take care of myself.
This article originally appeared in issue 88.