What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Talk: Alex Stieda

A cycling legend in Canada, Alex Stieda won a Commonwealth Games medal on the track in the pursuit and was a professional in Europe and North America for eight years from the mid-80s to early-90s, and wore the yellow jersey at the Tour (the first North American to do so, as everyone knows). Still deeply involved with cycling, PEZ proposed a quick tour of his cycling history, past to present.

It was with some trepidation that I proposed an interview with Alex Stieda. Since retiring as a racer, he has remained thoroughly involved in cycling in various capacities, including tours, a cycling skills instructional DVD, gran fondo escorts, and has recently been at the forefront of securing the UCI’s blessing for the Tour of Alberta in 2013. I was concerned because there was too much to talk about, too many topics to choose from. The whole interview could have been his pro career, or the day he upstaged the Tour de France and grabbed literally all the jerseys (a story recently told on a Rapha Continental video, well worth watching). With the new release of the Team 7-Eleven book in paperback from VeloPress by Geoff Drake, that would have made sense.

Stieda in yellow with a very young Jim Ochowicz and a handful of jerseys.

But with the recent rise in popularity of the gran fondo scene, and the announcement of the Tour of Alberta – all areas of big involvement for Stieda – it also seemed a good opportunity to hear more about his recent activities. And in the middle of it all, the doping revelations from the USADA report came out. So why not talk about it all? That said, the Team 7-Eleven book seemed the best place to start and I wanted to know whether there were any enduring memories from that era that had stayed with Stieda.

“It’s probably the camaraderie and the trust we had among the team,” he said. “It’s pretty special and we get together for a reunion every five years or so and it seems we haven’t been apart. We’re a lot older but we have a pretty special bond from the trials and tribulations – it was pretty crazy back then. We had to help each other. We were pretty much isolated and didn’t get any help from anyone else in the peloton; it was sink or swim. We had to lean on each other a lot just to survive.”

At the time, when Stieda turned pro in 1985, the race scene in North America was still in its infancy. Team 7-Eleven was sophisticated by local standards, but when they got to Europe it was a different story. I asked if it was a complete culture shock to mix it up in the European peloton.

“We knew how to ride in the peloton and do all those things correctly,” Stieda explained. “I think the euros weren’t sure we could do that. Every day and every race we had to prove that we were ‘safe’, that we weren’t going to cause crashes or do stupid things. And it worked out; we were able to do that – for the most part – although we did cause some crashes here and there [laughs]! We had to learn on the fly and also be responsible with how we carried ourselves. We were able to win as our first year as pros, with Ron Kiefel at Trofeo Laigueglia, which shocked everyone, ‘that was a fluke’. Then at the Giro in 1985, Eric Heiden won the Intergiro points classification.”

Ron Kiefel was one of the early winners for 7 Eleven that gained the team the respect of the Euros.

Back in North America, it was much easier to gain entry into pro races, but there was scant reward for being a professional cyclist. “It was pro, but that was kind of a loose term,” Stieda explained. “If you wanted to be a pro, all you had to do was take out a license. You pay USPRO the 200 bucks and you had a pro license. It was kind of a joke from that respect – anyone could send in their 200 bucks and get a license. We certainly weren’t in it for the money; we weren’t going to be getting rich. There were a few guys – LeMond and Hampsten – who got out there and made some decent coin. But the rest of us were just out there doing it for the love of the sport. You really had to love it to put up with the suffering. The challenge to be able to push yourself as far as you could go and see how far you could go. You had to question it sometimes, though, in the middle of a 250-kilometre Classic – ‘why am I doing this?’ It’s not for the faint of heart racing at that level.”

This is why he did it. 1986 Tour de France, Stieda claims yellow in a huge day for North American cycling.

One just knows that Stieda has many individual racing stories to share, but on this occasion he reminisces about the wider experience of being part of the European scene. “I enjoyed the adventure, the travel, the being in different places,” he told PEZ. “Experiencing the culture as it was all new to me and I was revelling in that, that whole spirit of adventure and pushing the limits. The good memories you have are always when you felt good in the race! Especially racing in Europe, it was so hard and for us to be able to excel in those environments, like when we got there in the mid-80s and to be able to race 250 kilometres was a huge challenge. We’d been racing in North America and 180 kilometres might’ve been the longest race we’d done. And there we are just jumping in: ‘Go and race Paris-Roubaix because we got some start money and we need the full team there.’ Great. Go ahead. We raced the Tour of Texas in late March and then fly over and do Paris-Roubaix – it was absurd, almost, to expect us to do well [laughs].

“Some of the guys were more committed to racing in Europe and went over there and were fully committed, Ron Kiefel and Jeff Pierce and those guys. I ended up doing a bit of both. I enjoyed coming back to the US and Canada to race because I knew I could win those races. Racing in Europe was so hard for me. Being an endurance track specialist was a hard conversion to racing on the road, let alone in Europe. It was tough; it was very, very tough. I enjoyed races like the Tour of Texas [the United Texas Tour, which Stieda won in ’88 and ‘89] and other stage races in North America because, a) I had a chance to win, and b) we really had the team component of those races dialled in. We would just have the tactics down perfect – one guy would attack, someone else would chase, then another guy would counter attack, sometimes me, sometimes a teammate. There was one particular stage at the Tour of Texas, we were way out in the middle of nowhere and I remember Jens Veggerby, my teammate from Denmark, he attacked on this one hill – went as hard as he could. Alexi Grewal [a former teammate on 7-Eleven but then riding for R.M.O. and later Coors Light] and a few other guys chased. Just as they were about to catch him, I was hanging on the back on them, and I countered and went as hard as I could and they couldn’t catch me. It was so classic. Those are the big memories, when the tactics work out perfectly, whether it was me or someone else on the team winning.”

One of Stieda’s teammates in the early days at 7-Eleven was the Kiwi, Nathan Dahlberg.

It has been easy this year, for us fans of Canadian cycling, to forget just how high the level is in Europe and just how hard it is to win a grand tour there because local lad Ryder Hesjedal won the Giro d’Italia. In fact, it was the only occasion that pro racing made the front cover of the local paper here in Vancouver (until the spotlight turned back onto Lance Armstrong). I was eager to get Stieda’s views on the impact of Hesjedal’s win on all the cycling activities he is involved in and wondered whether some parts of the cycling community are still impacted by what goes on in the pro racing scene in Europe.

“I really do think it was super important,” Stieda said. “I don’t think very many people realize how important it was for Ryder to do that. I don’t know how else to say it: it was absolutely huge that he was able to do what he did. And having that team support was massive. If you’re not in the bike racing game, it’s hard to understand. ‘Okay, a Canadian won.’ But there’s so much more than that. If you’re not in the game, it’s hard to understand the level of importance that Ryder’s win has. There’s a lot more people now interested in the sport who are not hard core riders. It used to be, twenty years ago, you only became a fan of the sport if you went out and did it yourself. That’s not the case now.”

Ryder’s win in the Giro this year has increased the popularity of cycling in Canada across all levels.

Stieda has been closely involved with the development of the gran fondo events here in British Columbia and has been a regular VIP at the Whistler event since its inception in 2010. He rode three events himself this year, the Granfondo Axel Merckx in Penticton, the Banff GranFondo in the Canadian Rockies, as well as the GranFondo Whistler itself.

“Axel’s event is different than GranFondo Canada’s events [such as Whistler] where they block a whole lane for the riders,” Stieda said. “Penticton just took over the road! I was at the front till Summerland taking pulls with Axel and his team and then found the grupetto on the first big climb. Banff was cool. They had to shorten it due to bear sightings but it was really well organized and having the whole 1A road [originally it was the main highway in Alberta] to ride on was perfect – no RVs! Whistler was amazing. I had one of my best days on the bike. I rode with [Olympic triathlete] Simon Whitfield and a few others, stopping at every rest stop and interacting with participants, then doing some tempo in between, towing some groups along. The weather was perfect, which helped of course – 3 years in a row of perfect weather at GranFondo Whistler. Amazing.”

PEZ wanted to know whether these events were becoming the new marathons, something unique in their own way as a cycling experience that was different to how many riders have typically participated in a more racing-focused scene.

“I think so,” Stieda said. “There are a lot of people who can’t run, because their ankles, knees or hips are blown out and they need something else to challenge themselves – the aging baby boomer [laughs]. It is that, though, if you look at the demographics. The demographics that GranFondo Canada have shared with me for Whistler, the average age is 47, 80% male, and the average household income is $200,000.”

With those numbers, it is hard not to think that the gran fondo scene is taking on a separate cycling identity in itself, with gran fondo riders much less likely to be turning up at a mid-week crit in an industrial park and wanting to rub elbows with the up-and-coming junior racers. Or those racers wanting to ride a gran fondo.

“It kind of bothers me, to some degree, that there are guys with racing licenses showing up to race a gran fondo,” Stieda said. “Guys, what are you doing – go and do some bike races; this is not for you. This is for people who just want to get out and enjoy the sport! But then the other side of me says, well, why not. There isn’t that many decent races with decent courses, and when they close the road – like GranFondo Canada does – why not use it for race training. And to use the marathon analogy, whenever there is a marathon there is a group of people at the front who are the fastest racers in the world. Why can’t bike racers come in and do the same?”

Stieda suggested that gran fondo organizers will do more in the future to reach out to sanctioned racing bodies to include racing categories in their events, but we agreed that these sorts of discussions were a new thing cycling and that a few years ago there were no comparable events to even talk about.

“It’s only within the last few years that the gran fondo scene has really cropped up as an option to do an event just to challenge yourself, much like a marathon,” Stieda said. “It’s really grown and there are so many people with road bikes and there’s no way they will ever race. A very small percentage will ever race to any degree – it takes so much time, commitment and training. You can do a gran fondo if you ride two or three times a week. To that end, I’m going to start a club in Edmonton next year that focuses on that type of riding, as opposed to hard-core training. Not just a social ride, we’ll do some training, but with expectations kept in check.”

With the burgeoning popularity of cycling, it did indeed seem like the perfect time to launch the Tour of Alberta. A new addition to the UCI calendar for 2013, the Tour will run September 3-8 and is rated 2.1 on the calendar, equivalent to the Tour of Utah or the Tour of Britain. The race will sit nicely on the calendar just before the WorldTour races in Quebec City and Montreal. PEZ tried to get a scoop on the route, but the details have yet to be finalized.

The Tour of Alberta has found a perfect date for next year, just before the truly scenic and popular races of Quebec pictured here and the GP de Montreal.

“We don’t have the route set at all yet,” Stieda said. “We’re still reaching out to communities. Hopefully, by December, we will have a tentative route. We’ll most likely start in Edmonton and finish in Calgary. My premise is that you have to bring the race to the people in the first few years so we educate them about the sport.”

The two cities are only 300 kilometres apart, so that leaves a lot of options for a six-day tour. But what about the timing, and how did the event come about? Stieda is a board member of the Alberta Peloton Association, the coordinating body, and the idea of such an event has been a dream of his for many years.

“Unbelievable, with Ryder winning the Giro, we couldn’t have asked for better timing there,” Stieda said. “And then the whole gran fondo thing coming around is definitely creating a buzz around cycling, North America wide. We’re really excited to get the sanction from the UCI to hold a 2.1 event, which has never happened before in Canada in the modern era – [the Tour de] Beauce is 2.2 and the world cups are single day events in Quebec City and Montreal – so a 2.1 stage race in Canada, plus we also got an exception for a six-day event, which doesn’t normally happen in the first year.

“We had our ducks in a row. We aligned ourselves with all the right people, such as Medalist Sports who used to organize Tour of Georgia and Tour of Missouri and now organize the Tour of California, the Tour of Utah, and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. They have the respect of the UCI. So when Medalist is involved, you can ask for a 2.1 sanction because the UCI says, number one, you have to have the budget, but, number two, you have to make sure the race is safe and run properly.

“The government of Alberta has underwritten the cost of the first year, about 60% of the budget. We’re now in the process of searching for additional sponsors and partners. When is the right time [to launch an event like the Tour]? I don’t know, who knows when the right time is. As we know, cycling is still trying to purge itself from the dirty years of cycling, from all the doping controversies, and it will take time. But it doesn’t make sense to wait for it to blow over because it will take many years for that to change. It’s such a beautiful sport and there are so many great things about the sport and for it to be tarnished this way is really unfortunate.”

It has indeed been a mixed year for cycling fans. Spectacular races have been haunted by headlines of scandal. The grand tours in Europe were compelling watching this year, but other smaller races have struggled. New events in Asia have lacked profile, but the stage races in North America seem to be going from strength to strength. Is there plenty to be optimistic about in the coming years?

“Of course I want to be optimistic,” Stieda said. “I’m a strong anti-doping advocate. When racing in Europe in the mid-80s, I realized how hard it really was and saw that riders from other teams were doping. I made a decision at that time to race more in North America where I knew I had a chance to win while riding clean. Unfortunately, the issue is when one rider looks across the peloton and sees another guy have a good day, he thinks ‘that guy must be on something, I better be on something’ and then it just escalates from there. The controls are much stronger than they ever have been. I certainly do hope that the UCI continues their strong controls and carries through with everything that they are promising. There is lots of talk, some say there are, some say they aren’t. I think they’re on the right track. Everything they are doing is starting to change the culture. It’s a generational thing and it will take a generation to change the culture of what it takes to win.”

The full USADA dossier and the associated rider confessions had yet to come out when I spoke initially with Stieda. So I went back to him for some subsequent comments, trying to get a more rounded view of what the sport needed to do to move forward.

“The recent revelations from cycling’s doping past are certainly disappointing but not unexpected,” Stieda said. “I believe that this is exactly what cycling needs, a catharsis of sorts. We need everyone inside and outside the sport to understand that change is required; the status quo is not acceptable. Strict testing must continue and the culture of how the sport is run needs new people and new ideas and the testing program needs to continue to evolve with new technologies and science. I whole-heartedly agree with Mike Barry and his suggestions for change [following his doping confession, Michael Barry wrote an op-ed in The New York Times calling for changes]. The riders need to be respected and listened to without fear of repercussion. If we look at other pro sports, the players’ unions are unified and much stronger. Cycling’s sport governing bodies need to understand that they wouldn’t have a sport without the athletes and we need to have a legitimate voice at the table.

“Being able to state, ‘I can win races riding clean’ is essential and must be the mantra of the peloton. The current and new generations of riders must be able to have this confidence that the system will support them.”

Stieda will be kept well busy in the months ahead contributing to the organizing of the Tour of Alberta. It is clear that he still has a passion for cycling and his optimism about the future is infectious, despite the work that needs to be done. Much as I might have liked to hear more race stories from the 80s, time spent talking about the here-and-now, as well as where cycling is going, was well worth it. Looking back has a nostalgic appeal; but if cycling is going to have new glory days, we are going to have to spend a lot of time looking to the future as well.

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