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Tour de France: The wonderful story of Alex Stieda

A Canadian rides high for a few hours on July 5, 1986

This year’s Tour de France marks the 25th anniversary of Canadian Alex Stieda becoming the first North American to wear the coveted yellow jersey. Sure, it was only for a few hours, and he would ultimately finish 120th in the 1986 Tour, but his glorious afternoon marked the tipping point when North American riders would begin to lose their provincialism in the eyes of their European counterparts. Greg LeMond would win his first of three Tours in 1986. Canadian Steve Bauer would wear the maillot jaune twice in 1988 and 1990. Later came Lance Armstrong . . .

But at the beginning of Stage 2 on July 5, 1986, Alex Stieda and the rest of the world knew none of this and could only dream of it. The day was an odd one: there was a 85 km road race in the late morning and a 55 km team trial in the afternoon. Stieda, riding for the upstart 7-11 team, got in an early break that stuck. Even though he finished fifth, Stieda plucked the yellow jersey off the shoulders of Theirry Marie, Systeme U’s prologue specialist. It was a heady moment for the young rider from Belleville, Ontario.

But it was a short ride on the crest before he came crashing down. The team time trial was a disaster for both 7-11 and Greg LeMond’s La Vie Claire team. Laurent Fignon’s well-drilled Systeme U won handily and Marie regained the jersey. Stieda found himself 5:10 in arrears only hours after hitting what was then the high mark of North American racing.

This year Ryder Hesjedal is the only Canadian at the Tour de France, and after last year’s surprising seventh place – only Steve Bauer has finished higher as a Canadian at 4th in 1988 – the hopes of a nation might prove to be a heavy mantle. Stieda’s yellow jersey came in another era, when there were no expectations of him and North Americans were unknown upstarts. And as Ryder himself might tell you, sometimes it might be easier when nobody knows your name.