O Canada!

6 07 2010

In honor of Ryder Hesjedal’s epic ride in today’s third stage of the Tour de France, this posting is actually a story I wrote for our newspaper, about another ¬†heroic performance in the Tour by a Canadian rider, Alex Stieda, 14 years ago.

For those who missed it, Hesjedal was part of a seven man break that formed early in today’s 213 km stage through Belgium and northern France, which included seven sections of rough and tumble cobblestones. With 41 kms left in the stage, Hedjedal broke away on his own, and he managed to stay out front until just after the last section of pav√©, when he was caught by the likes of Fabian Cancellara, Cadel Evans, Andy Schleck and Thor Hushovd.

Hedjedal didn’t give up, though. He stuck with the new leading group, and even tried to break for the win; he ended up fourth. When the dust settled from all the riders arriving, he also climbed to fourth in the GC.

More importantly, he served notice to the peloton that he’s an all-around rider to be taken seriously. With his team’s leader, Christian Vandevelde, out of the Tour after breaking ribs in Stage Two, it will be interesting if his team agrees.

When Neil Davies sits down to watch the Tour de France this month, he knows a little about what it takes to win the leader’s Yellow Jersey.

Not that he’s ever ridden Le Tour; Davies’ competitive cycling days are long behind him, and he now runs Jubilee Cycle in Burnaby. But in the late 1970s he trained and raced with a young up-and-comer from Coquitlam named Alex Stieda. In 1979, Davies beat Stieda at the BC provincial junior championships.

Seven years later, Stieda became the first North American to ever wear the coveted Yellow Jersey.

On the second day of the 1986 Tour, the riders raced two stages, an 85 km road race from Nanterre to Sceaux in the morning, followed by a 56 km team time trial later that afternoon, from Meudon to Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, just outside of Paris. Early in the morning stage Stieda, riding for the newly-minted 7-Eleven cycling team, the first American professional team invited to the Tour, told his leader, Davis Phinney, he was feeling particularly good; could he forge on ahead, maybe even go for a stage victory?

While he didn’t win the stage, his time was good enough to put him in the Yellow Jersey. On the podium, he was also awarded the maillot blanc as the best young rider, and the polka dot jersey for earning the most points ascending the day’s modest climbs.

Stieda didn’t get to enjoy the maillot jaune very long; he lost it that afternoon to frenchman Thierry Marie. He also gave up the white jersey. He hung on to the polka dot jersey for five more stages.

One of them hangs on the wall of Davies’ bike shop.

One of Alex Stieda's polka-dot jersies hangs in Neil Davies bike shop.

Even as Stieda enjoyed early success in the French countryside, his thoughts were never far from his riding mates back home; Davies says he often phoned the shop after stages to hear a familiar voice and to share his stories from the road.

“It was wild to think that one of my buddies was doing the Tour,” says Davies.

Not that Davies was surprised. After he beat Stieda at the provincials, his rival seemed to kick up his training to another level, he became a more aggressive rider.

That summer Stieda dominated the track cycling nationals at the old Olympic Velodrome in Montreal. His performance caught the attention of pro teams.

“Once he reached the next step, he realized he had something special,” says Davies of Stieda’s ascension. “When you have team support, they put you on a program, they try to pull the best ability from you.”

And for one magical July day, Stieda was the absolute best.