The 1986 season was remarkable for North American cycling. The road and track World Championships were held in the United States. And a U.S.-based squad sponsored by an American convenience store chain competed in the Tour de France and it featured a 25-year-old rider who pedaled into Canadian history.
Alex Stieda wasn’t Canada’s most internationally prominent cyclist. The country’s champions date more than 100 years to riders like versatile track specialist Walter Andrews who competed in six events and claimed a bronze men’s in the pursuit in the 1908 Olympics.
But Stieda, inspired by countryman Ron Hayman who rode for 7-Eleven five years earlier, brought Canada’s cycling success to a new level. He became the first Canadian and first North American to wear the Tour de France race leader’s yellow jersey after the second stage.
The inaugural Tour of Alberta, buoyed by the success of Canada’s two Pro Tour road races, and Stieda’s iconic ride, further elevates the country’s cycling prominence. The race will debut 25 years after Steve Bauer became the first Canadian to win a Tour de France stage.
The 15-team, 120-rider field will include young Canadian pros still transitioning into cycling from other sports and veteran riders with vast international experience and whose careers are waning.
Stieda’s Tour de France race lead ended a few hours later in the stage 3 team time trial. But his accomplishment served as a launching ramp for the sometimes sporadic, sometimes steady and now nearly meteoric success among Canadians in the pro peloton.
“Canadian cycling has really grown within the last 20 years, especially since I’ve been a professional,” said Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) won the 2012 Tour of Italy. “When I was growing up, there were only a few names. Steve Bauer and Alex Stieda blazed the trails. For me, I started mountain biking but races like the Giro (Tour of Italy) and Tour de France were the epic quests.”
Hesjedal’s victory at the Tour of Italy greatly enhanced Canadian cycling’s history. He was the country’s first Grand Tour winner, and the feat drew wide acclaim.
Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister called Hesjedal’s triumph a defining moment in sport. “This remarkable win in one of bicycle racing’s most grueling competitions is a testimony to Mr. Hesjedal’s training, endurance, skill and competitive spirit.”
Christy Clark, the British Columbia premier, added: “For a British Columbian to have done this is amazing. I know this is going to go down as one of the great Canadian accomplishments ever in sport.”
Hesjedal, who has completed the Tour of Italy twice and the Tour de France six times, will lead the Garmin-Sharp in the Tour of Alberta. The Colorado-based team is among 10 competing teams featuring Canadian riders.
“I hope my win at the Giro d’italia can continue to inspire a new generation of cyclists,” said Hesjedal. “We’re definitely getting stronger as a nation and I’m glad to be part of that movement.”
The Tour of Alberta will afford the new generation of Canadian riders six days of racing on an estimated 900-kilometer route from Edmonton to Calgary.
The peloton is expected to feature many of the sport’s best, including four-time Tour de France stage winner Peter Sagan (Cannondale) of Slovakia, the world’s No. 2-ranked rider. Six teams that competed in the 2013 Tour de France are entered and the field will include national titlists from numerous countries.
Canadian Michael Woods, the former hockey player-turned-runner-turned pro cyclist is among the new generation of competing riders. Woods, 26, join the UCI Continental Garneau-Quebecor team this season.
“People often are not aware of how much a team sport cycling is,” said Woods, who finished 11th in the road race at the Canadian National Championship and 9th overall at the Tour de Beauce in Quebec. “But much like hockey, every rider, particularly at the pro level, plays a role.
“Although one person may garner individual glory through winning a race, or scoring a goal, it is impossible to win a high level stage race, or score a goal without that team support.”
The Tour of Alberta’s contingent of Canadians couldn’t be more diverse. The country’s national team will feature emerging pros. Rosters from teams registered in the U.S., the Netherlands, China, Italy and Australia will include riders from Canada.