Davis Phinney has a special place in the heart of any kid that discovered bike racing in the 1980s. He wasn’t a super-human aerobic freak like Greg LeMond; he wasn’t a climber with the physique of a teenage girl with an eating disorder. Davis was relatable. Davis was cool. It was as if your high school football team’s all-state quarterback decided to stop throwing touchdown passes and give bike racing a try. Davis had biceps, he had an “I got this” air about him.
Words: Ben Edwards, Images: John Pierce/Photosport International
We revered LeMond like a god, but we wanted to be Davis Phinney.
Already established as the greatest sprinter in U.S. road cycling history, Davis traveled to Europe as a new pro with the 7-Eleven team in 1985 and, to the shock of the Euro establishment, he and his team, sponsored by a convenience store without a location in Europe, garnered an invite to the following year’s Tour de France. His team time trial bronze medal from the ’84 Olympics hinted at the fact that he may be able to win big races, but the ’86 Tour de France made it a fact when he became the first American to win a Tour road stage (LeMond won a time trial stage at the ’85 Tour). Davis would go on to win another stage in 1987 and amass more wins in his career than any other American bike racer, 328, a record that still stands.
We found ourselves at Pearl Izumi’s headquarters in Boulder, Colorado, with the chance to ask Davis a few questions—and the first that came to mind was that ’86 Tour stage win. We had always assumed it was a bunch sprint, but Davis actually won from a small breakaway and we asked for the details. In true Davis Phinney style, he described the win as “…fairly memorable.”
It was stage 3, Sunday, July 6, 214 kilometers from Levallois- Perret to Liévin, and 7-Eleven was hoping to bounce back from an extremely eventful first two stages. Davis, a Tour rookie, rode the stage’s finale more relaxed than a seasoned pro, despite the incredibly high stakes. We soon learned that it’s much easier to be relaxed when you have no idea how high the stakes really are.
Davis Phinney: “Andy (Hampsten) would join us in ’87 and we would begin our march toward global domination, but in ’86 we were real newbies to the pro scene and we got an invite to the Tour de France. On the very first day, in the very first stage, our teammate Alex Stieda was in a solo breakaway and got enough bonus seconds to inherit the yellow jersey, so that was a phenomenal start. (Pol Verschuere won the stage and Stieda took the jersey from Thierry Marie, who’d won the Prologue – ed).
“Then we got our comeuppance that afternoon in the team time trial when Alex was so gassed from his effort in the morning he got dropped, just barely made the time cut by a few seconds. So we went from this amazing high to this serious low.
“On day two, I just happened to get in a breakaway with about 80K to go with maybe 10 other riders. We managed to stay away to the point where the bunch was closing down on us and we had 10 seconds…as we went under the red kite, the final kilometer. I was sitting at the back of the group pretty relaxed knowing that I was the fastest sprinter, or at least believing that I was the fastest sprinter in the group. I looked back and they were maybe 200 yards behind us and I looked up and saw the finish and thought, ‘Yeah, we are going to make it!’
“The reason that I was so relaxed was I actually thought we were sprinting for second place! A rider had jumped away with 20K to go and had just got out of sight and the road was full of spectators. We didn’t have radios then, we didn’t know anything. So we assumed we were sprinting for second or at least I did. I hadn’t seen him since.”
“We come up the hill, it’s a gradual incline [and] 200 meters to go, I launch and I feel great. I pass everyone with relative ease. So much so that I left off the gas in the final 10 meters and these two riders, Robert Dill-Bundi from Switzerland and Henk Boeve from Holland, come flying up—and on the line I just manage to edge my bike forward. It was a really crappy bike throw! But I beat Henk Boeve by that much (Davis holds his fingers up, an inch apart), so I won the sprint and there’s bedlam at the finish line.”
“John Wilcockson, the well-known writer, comes up to me and says, “Davis you won! That was incredible! You won!” (Davis does a pretty good English accent here. – ed)
“I say, ‘Yeah, I won the bunch sprint for second.’
“He looks at me like I’m a bonehead. ‘Second? You won the stage!’”
“‘I can’t believe it!’ That was my quote because I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘What happened to the Spanish rider who had attacked?’
“John says, ‘The Spanish rider? He punctured miles ago!’”
“What had happened was he had punctured and he had no support so he pulled off to the side of the road and we rode right by him in the crowd and never noticed him! So that was my fleeting bit of glory for the Tour. I got another stage win (stage 12 at Bordeaux in 1987 – ed), but that one was fairly memorable!”
With the yellow jersey and a stage win to their credit, Davis and 7-Eleven had, in a couple of days, proved they belonged at the Tour. The rest of the ’86 Tour’s history was written by two other Americans on the French team La Vie Claire, Greg LeMond and Andy Hampsten. The 7-Eleven team and Davis would go on to suffer in France finishing with only five riders. Davis abandoned in the second week and Bob Roll, not a reputed climber, was the highest placed 7-Eleven rider in 63rd almost two hours off the pace set by the final winner, LeMond.