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Tour novice to Champs-Élysées winner: Jeff Pierce

From issue 87 • Word by James Startt with images from Graham Watson

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To say that Jeff Pierce was a Tour de France neophyte when he first lined up at the Tour de France in 1986 is nothing short of an understatement. As with just about every American on the pioneering 7-Eleven team that year, Pierce came to the Tour terribly underprepared. But Pierce quickly turned his learning experience into a success story. And though he took a beating in his first Tour, he returned in 1987 and used the knowledge he gained to win the final stage on the Champs-Élysées. Quite amazing!

Jeff, you were a member of 7-Eleven, the first American team to ride the Tour de France. Your team’s stories from that Tour are just amazing! Yeah, and what’s more, it was not only my first Tour but also my first professional bike race!

What? That’s unimaginable? Yeah, I tell people that now and they are like, “What? Your first pro race was the Tour de France?” Yup!

Well, it’s true that back then the Tour de France could invite wild card teams that were essentially amateur teams, like the Colombian national team. And while it was a stiff learning curve, you guys did amazingly well in many ways. Yeah, but we had a certain attitude. Sure it was a bike race and sure it was a big one. But I was like, I can race bikes and I’m just going to go over there and see what I can do! I think people would be terrified today. We were somewhat different in a defiant kind of way. We were just like, No, we don’t have to do it like it’s been done for the last hundred years. We’re going to do it our way. We’re going to have some fun and see what we can do. That said, we still got our asses kicked!

But the team also grabbed the yellow jersey on the first road stage and then won a stage…. Yes we did! And that was all in the first couple of days. It was an unbelievable start for sure. But it sort of went downhill from there.

Yeah, the race is three weeks long and even the best riders today know that the fatigue levels of the third week in the Tour provide challenges like none other. And you guys simply didn’t have that kind of physical foundation, being raised on racing in the U.S. Had you ever even climbed mountains like the Alps and the Pyrénées? Well, I had raced in the Rockies. But I wasn’t used to the steepness of some of the climbs. I was supposed to be one of the climbers, but we were up against a whole other set of circumstances there. We were pretty beaten down by that third week, but we made it through. Our goal was to finish as a team and we finished with five guys, so we felt as though we had accomplished our goal. That was an unbelievable experience. And by the time you finished on the Champs-Elysées you began to understand what had just happened. There was Ron Kiefel, Bob Roll, Alex Stieda, Raúl Alcalá and myself.

Do you remember one climb in particular that was just unreal or where you almost thought about dropping out? No, never, but I did think about killing the Tour de France director!

Really? Yeah, it was on this one stage where we went through this dark tunnel with no lights. There was just a pinprick of light at the other end, but no visibility. Everybody was focused on that pinprick of light and everybody started making noises to each other so you knew where the people were around you. But you had no idea where anybody really was. My strategy was to ride on one side of the road so that I only had to worry about guys on one side of me. So I was hugging the edge of this one side of the tunnel and all of a sudden, the next thing I know, I feel my front wheel go into some gravel and wham my head just slams into the tunnel wall.

It turns out that there had been some roadwork and when the team cars came through later with their headlights, they just found me lying in a heap of rubble! They found me and put me back on my bike. I had a cut in my head. There was blood dripping down and they patched me up, but finally [directeur sportif] Mike [Neel] said, “Hey, you got to go!” So I started chasing, but I was way off!

Wow, that’s an amazing story. Do you remember the climb or descent that tunnel was on? No, I just remember that “death” was in the name somehow, the mountain of death or something! [Most likely La Croix de l’Homme Mort (“Dead Man’s Cross”), three stages from the finish in Paris.] I just chased for hours. I was getting madder and madder and all the time when I was chasing just thinking, “Why in hell did we have to go through a dark tunnel?” But I was just not going to drop out of my first Tour like that. There was just no way that was going to be my story! But I was just getting madder and madder as I was chasing and chasing and I was making plans in my head that as soon as I finally caught up, I was just going to dive through that car window and strangle the race director! That was my plan and that was what kept me going. 

I chased for two hours. All I remember was that the French people kept yelling at me the whole time. They kept yelling something like “Allez, deux-cent-sept!” Now you have to remember that as Americans in our first Tour, we were made fun of a lot, and everything it seemed was blamed on us. I mean there could be a crash 10 riders in front of us and it was our fault! So I was convinced that the fans were making fun of me. Finally, I called up [team manager] Jim Ochowicz, who was in the car behind me and said, “Hey what are these people yelling ‘Allez, deux-cent-sept!’ Go find out what that means!” 

Och came back about 10 minutes later and said, “Hey, it means ‘Go, number 207!’” And I looked down on my frame and saw that that was my race number! So they were being very nice actually, but I was in a rage at the time and just convinced that they were making fun of me!

Well, while that first Tour may have been the school of hard knocks for you guys, the team came back much stronger the next year. And you had that amazing stage win on the Champs-Élysées! Yeah, I will never forget that day. Two guys attacked on the right with about two and a half laps to go and I thought, Hey, that actually looks like a good move! So I jumped on the left and another guy came with me and we joined up. Then there were five, then six or seven. And by the last lap we had about 13 guys going into the last lap and we had about a 25-second gap. Suddenly, I realized that we only had about 4 kilometers left and we could really make it to the line. I looked at the guys and knew I could beat most of the guys in the sprint. I thought, Hey, I can get top 10 on the Champs—amazing! Then a guy attacks before we make the turn around the Arc de Triomphe. I was sitting on the back as they chased the guy down, and right when they caught him there was a moment of hesitation. And from the back, I saw an opportunity and went for it. I wasn’t thinking about it at the time. I was just racing! It was that magic moment where we were far enough from the finish that the guys in the break thought they could catch me, and yet we were just close enough where I thought I could stay away.

I just put my head down and went. I was flying! As we came up Rue de Rivoli I could hear my name over the loudspeakers and I saw the little red kite that marked the final kilometer. I knew I had like 12 seconds at that point and was feeling pretty good. But then I looked back and saw Steve Bauer chasing and I thought, Oh shit! I was dying. I was pretty spent. So I started backing off just a little to try to save something for a last push to the line. We’re coming down the Champs-Élysées. But it is just like a mirage and Bauer is closing in on me. And right about 300 meters from the line, Bauer makes contact with me, and that is when I launched my sprint. And it worked! He had no response. He had spent everything to get to me and I just opened it back up!

What did it feel like to hit that line on the Champs-Élysées, knowing you had just won the final stage of the Tour? You know, it’s funny. I waited once I hit the line. I looked. And when I realized that there was no one else there, I just exploded, screaming at the top of my lungs! Everything came together there. It was everything I had learned about bike racing since I was a junior. It was just pure racing, sifting through everything I had learned over the years and taking a chance and it worked out in my favor that day.

Wow, that must have been your greatest day on a bike! Oh yeah. It was just amazing. And oh, by the way, I didn’t kill the Tour de France director back in the Alps!

From issue 87. Buy it here.