Many people know me for being the first North American to wear the Yellow Jersey at the Tour de France, but most don’t know the unlikely story of how a skinny kid from Coquitlam, BC became a pro cyclist at the Tour de France.
Growing up in my hometown just east of Vancouver was pretty normal is some respects. At least I thought so! Turns out that the things I experienced became instrumental in shaping my future character. So many unnatural events occurred in succession that I can only put it down to fate.
One of my fondest memories was going camping with my family. Now, what I thought was normal was actually not! My Dad took us ‘camping’ which for him meant loading up backpacks with sleeping bags, tent stove, fuel, food, etc and walking into the wilderness. We had to get tough quickly, especially when the weather changed. When I came back to my grade school after a long weekend of camping with my Dad and told some friends about my experiences, they just shook their heads in wonderment.
I also had the daily morning paper route so each day would be up by 5AM to ride my bike (a Raleigh Chopper!) to the paper box to collect my 60 papers to deliver with all the weight balanced over that small front wheel. Saturdays were especially tough when the paper doubled in size and weight.
I really wanted to play ice hockey growing up. But whether my parents couldn’t afford it or I truly was too skinny, I didn’t get to play on the ice until I was 12. I had to satisfy my urge by playing street hockey every day after school as well as soccer and baseball, which didn’t have body checking…and were less expensive for the family. Once I did start playing, I was so excited to be on the ice I did some crazy things like paint my skates yellow (yes, yellow!) and wrote patterns on my stick. And to top it off, my parents wouldn’t get up at 6AM on Sunday morning to take me to the rink so I loaded up my bike with my hockey bag and stick and rode to the rink myself. I couldn’t figure out why no one else had their bike there!
In addition to sports, I was also doing well in school and got labelled as a teacher’s pet of sorts and was bullied and teased by the ‘cool boys’ on and off during my formative high school years. It was excruciating to hear the taunts but somehow I carried on through it all.
In the Summer of 1976, when I was 15, I wanted to do something to get stronger for hockey that Fall. For some reason I turned to cycling. Well, bike touring (they call it ‘bike packing’ now!) actually. The spirit of adventure that my Dad had formed in me was translated over to the bike. With my paper route money, I bought my first “10-speed” for $20, fixed it up with a rattrap and panniers and rode to Tsawwassen to get the ferry to the Gulf Islands. To this day, I can’t believe that my parents let me go on my own. The feeling of independence and freedom that I felt while riding alone was intoxicating. I just wanted to do more. Something I’m sure Svein Tuft can attest to.
It then turned out that my Mom’s Dad, my Grandfather in England had been a very serious randonneur cyclist during the 50’s. My Mom had ridden with him and she shared his hand written training diaries with me. At the same time, a neighbour just 3 houses away, Harold Bridge just happened to also be an accomplished rider and he took me out for rides and taught me skills on drafting, nutrition and bike maintenance. He directed me to the Vancouver Veteran’s club 10 mile TT at UBC where I proceeded to get stronger every week.
There I met other Junior riders my age and a British coach with a curious name, Baz Lycett who invited me to join them at the local outdoor track for training and racing every Wednesday night. Turns out that Baz was one of Canada’s premier coaches at the time and I happened to be there when he was available. Within a year of track training and racing, our BC Junior team won every medal at the 1978 Nationals. That group of guys remain friends to this day.
Of course, it doesn’t end there. During that time, Ron Hayman was one of Canada’s only professional cyclists and he just happened to live in Vancouver as well. We trained all Winter in the cold rain and snow, hanging onto Ron’s wheel as he mentored us, driving himself into the ground, getting ready for the European pro season.
In the Fall of 1979, Ron sat me down with one of the elder statesmen of BC cycling, Roger Sumner and explained that if I was going to make a go of it in cycling, I had to go to Europe to try my hand at racing there. I agreed, so in 1980, with the help of a $500 grant from the City of Coquitlam and a free DND flight to Laar, Germany, I spent 2 months in Belgium, living in a cold-water flat (yes, there is only cold running water and an out-house!), racing Kermesse 2-3x/week. I figured out that if I got into the break with guys from the ‘combine’, that break would stick. Due to the speed I had gained from my track experience, I was able to win sprints from the break and eventually won 4 of those races on my own.
As fate would have it, Ron joined the 7-Eleven team in 1981. They were looking for new talent so in the Fall of 1981, I joined the team for a trial (we now call it Stagiaire) period while they raced on the East coast of the US. I believe that they were certainly looking for talent but also for riders that they could get along with. We had a lot of fun during and after the races but I particularly remember shooting bottle rockets out of the back of the team van and thinking, “I want to be a part of this”!
Racing for 7-Eleven pushed me to new levels of expectations and I rose to the challenge as we all matured toward the ’84 Olympics. We raced almost every weekend from 50km crits to 2 week stage races such as the Coors Classic. I had raced against a guy named Greg Lemond at the ’79 track Junior Worlds where he beat me by a millisecond in the quarter finals. At the Coors Classic stage in San Francisco, I got away with Greg in a 2 man break and beat him to the line, getting my revenge!
I was also able to be part of the Canadian national team endurance track program going to Europe to race early season stage races and then track events, fulfilling my duties to qualify for the Olympics.
Once the Olympics were over, the 7-Eleven amateur team faced a choice. Turn pro or start life anew off the bike. Since I had been focussed on track racing, I stayed amateur for one more year through the 1985 season, racing on the National road team as well as 7-Eleven with the goal of turning pro for the 1986 campaign. During ’85, I had some of my best amateur results winning European 1-day and stage races, proving to myself and the 7-Eleven team I was ready to turn pro. Little did I know what was to come.
We went to Italy to start the 1986 pro season due to Mike Neel’s Italian contacts. The racing was colder and tougher than anything I had ever experiences. I saw grown men break down in tears due to hypothermia and riders passed out on transfer buses immediately after stages. I was really beginning to wonder what I had got myself into.
Fast forward to May, 1986. Suddenly, we were notified by Jim Ochowicz, our Director that we had been accepted to race the Tour that year. I think it had something to do with the American TV negotiations and ASO, who owned the Tour. We scrambled to hold a training camp in our Santa Barbara stomping grounds! Normally, teams race a 10-day stage race, either Dauphine or Switzerland. We just rode around!! Fortunately, there were 10-man teams that year and our squad of neo-pros had room for a track ‘rouleur’ who could sprint but not climb worth beans! And as they say, the rest is history, capping off an unlikely story, one that would be hard to believe had I not been there to witness the whole thing.