6th July, 1986
1986 was the year the Americans came to the Tour. Greg LeMond had been in the race the previous year, helping Bernard Hinault to overall victory, but he’d been part of La Vie Claire, a French team. In 1986 an American team entered the Tour for the first time, Team 7-Eleven. (An American also won the Tour for the first time, with Greg LeMond taking the yellow jersey…but that’s a whole other story!)
It hadn’t been easy, to even appear on the start line was something of an achievement. In the 1980s, teams were invited to race at the behest of the Tour’s organisers, the UCI having little to no power over such matters. The Tour was proudly European, and some fans were confused as to why Team 7-Eleven had even been invited to attend. The US President of the time, Reagan, didn’t help the campaign to start the Tour – air strikes against Libya were seen as having the potential to cause unrest, with American citizens bearing the brunt of any anti-American feeling that had been stirred up. Team 7-Eleven called a halt to their race calendar in the early part of the year, fearing that as an American team and therefore a symbol of the US, the riders might be targets for angry reprisals.
Nevertheless, the US team found itself on the start line of the 1986 Tour, which began in Boulogne-Billancourt with a 4.6km prologue. The prologue was won by a Frenchman, Thierry Marie. The race was off to an all-European start. Stage 2 saw Team 7-Eleven get tactical, when the Canadian rider Steida got into an early break and began chasing time bonuses on the road. By the end of the day, he had become the first North American to hold the yellow jersey. Team 7-Eleven’s selection appeared to be justified.
A few hours after being handed the maillot jaune, Team 7-Eleven were handing it back. Immediately following Stage 2, on the same day, came Stage 3 – a Team Time Trial. Exhausted from their antics on the road, and perhaps showing their relative inexperience, the American team crashed early on, and then capitulated, dropping Steida in the process – clearly, defending yellow was a new notion.
Not to be downhearted however, Team 7-Eleven were once again on top of the world after Stage 3, a 214km flat stage from Levallois-Perret to Liévan. Davis Phinney – father of current pro Taylor – was able to get himself into a small breakaway, and rode into the history books as the first ever American to win a road stage of the Tour de France. (Greg LeMond’s previous stage win had been in a Time Trial). Phinney was perhaps the last man to realise the significance of his ride however, as he was certain that the break he’d been riding with had failed to catch a solo rider who had gone off the front, and was completely unaware that he was in fact crossing the line as the stage winner.
“It was a gradual uphill finish and I waited and jumped at about 300 meters to go, which was pretty long. I kind of took everybody by surprise because I was the first one to jump. So, even coming from the back, I got ahead of everybody and then the line just seemed like it took forever to get there…. I was so totally relaxed because we were only racing for second …I just chilled.
“Right as I came across the line, John Wilcockson (cycling journalist) said, ‘You won! That was incredible!’
I said, ‘Yeah, I won the group sprint for second.’
He said, ‘No, you won!’”