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91st Tour de France - July 3-25, 2004
Davis Phinney's Tour Diary: A Sprinter's Tale
With over 300 national and international victories in a career that spanned two decades, Davis Phinney is still the winningest cyclist in U.S. history. In 1986, he was the first American ever to win a road stage in the Tour de France; five years later, he won the coveted USPRO road title in Philadelphia.
In 2000, when Davis was just 40 years old, he was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson's disease. But that hasn't kept him down. Since retiring from professional cycling, Davis has been a cycling sports commentator, public speaker and journalist. He brings his passion for those two-wheeled machines to Cyclingnews for the 2004 Tour de France.
Stage 8 - July 11: Lamballe - Quimper, 168 km
Alex Stieda: An American in Paris
We awoke ridiculously early and grudgingly descended to breakfast at our hotel, the fantastic Chateau de Castel Novel (in Varetz), where the staff had prepared quite a spread on this, the yet to be, morning of the 2004 L'Etape du Tour ride. At precisely 4:30am, the bus departed for Limoges, some 100 km distant and the start line. Our group is a mixed bag, ranging from the serious to the hobbyist, but all cyclists and all committed to trying the difficult 240 km ride from Limoges to St. Fleur.
On route, Canadian Alex Stieda, past holder of the yellow jersey, regaled the group with the story of that famous day in Paris when he scooped the entire cycling world to take not only the yellow leader's jersey but also ended up leading virtually every other jersey category as well.
The year was 1986 and it was the first time that a North American-based squad was lining up for a Tour start. Following the prologue, we assembled for the first of two stages on the day. The experience of being in the Tour had not quite sunk in for me until I actually stood at that start line in Paris, sensing the immense power in the peloton all around me and looking up the road at the thousands and thousands of spectators awaiting the stage depart. I tried to look and 'feel' the part of a Tour rider, while not yet convinced in the least. And to make matters worse, in that respect, I denoted that while everyone else was decked out in full road 'kit' - jersey, shorts, etc., one guy stood glaringly out and not in a good way. While we were trying to fit in, Alex was there, straddling his bike in a 'skin suit', kit designed for TT's - not for a road race and certainly never for a road stage in the Tour.
I could hear the muttering, the snickering, distinctly. Thanks Alex, I thought, thanks a lot... But the race got underway and we there, in the group, in the club - the 7-Eleven team, hopefully up to the task of the Grande Boucle.
It was around the 20km mark that Alex made his move. While the entire peloton - lead moto's, Tour vehicles and riders - descended to the left of an overpass abutment, Alex went left. I remember thinking, 'What in the world is he doing?', but Alex had a plan and he played it perfectly. He simply rocketed up the road, while everyone else watched. And you could tell that the Europeans didn't know what to make of this Canadian interloper; I mean, he was wearing a skinsuit for heaven's sake.
Alex smartly rolled up the road, and as the miles went by, he started his collection: time bonuses and points galore, for every category. Mountain, sprints, you name it, he was just piling them into his swelling back pockets. For some 80 kilometres, he sat out there solo, fighting to hold his lead as he'd carefully studied the race bible and independent of the team, had crystallized a plan. He realized the promoters, knowing the riders would want to save their legs for the afternoon TTT, and wanting to inspire a more competitive morning ride had stacked the stage chock full of bonuses. No one else, no other rider or team director had anticipated this. And it was Alex that took the risk and Alex that enjoyed the reward.
He was caught by a small break near the finish but still drove for all he was worth. He'd figured that with his bonus seconds in hand, the only rider who could take the jersey was the Belgian sprinter Vanderaerden, should Eric win the stage. We caught the back of the breakaway group in the sprint but Vanderaerden didn't win and Alex had the yellow jersey. Alex in fact, had all the jerseys - polka dot, white, combined, red... you name it. Our first day in the Tour and Team 7-Eleven had a man in yellow! It was incredible.
That was the moment we really arrived in the Tour and while we suffered some heavy retribution in the ensuing TTT (another story), none of the riders that were there will likely ever forget the day Alex made history.
And of course we all took credit for the skinsuit.
I write this from the Chateau, today's Tour stage unfolding on the TV. The weather is very atypical this year. From searing heat in last year's event, to a seemingly endless succession of rain days this July, the riders are long suffering. A nice hard finish for the sprinters too, with a battle royale between Denmark and Norway in the end. Hushovd showed his strength and good tactical sense by carrying his speed through the last rain-slicked turn. I would have loved a finish like that, back in the day, as having the hill and wet roads would've been an advantage, versus the more prevalent 'drag strip' sprint finishes.
But that is just ideal speculation. In my own 'Tour' event today, I gave what I could but ended up retiring from the l'Etape after just 65km. That was enough, that was all I was really capable of. But Alex Stieda rode with me, side by side, the whole way; joking, inspiring, pushing me - as needed. Ever the faithful teammate, ever the faithful friend.