If you followed the Tour de France as an Australian 22 years ago, you’ll remember the scene well. After years as a valued domestique for some of the biggest names in cycling, Neil Stephens finally earned a chance to shine.
Largely by coincidence, he explains, he found himself in a breakaway group late in the race… “and then one thing led to another”.
It was a 218km race from Fribourg to Colmar, stage 17 of a hectic Tour. His team-mate at the time, Richard Virenque, was second on GC at the start of the day. The Tour was exiting the Alps and although there four stages to follow, the battle for the yellow jersey was effectively over.
This tale isn’t about the many things ‘Stevo’ did, nor about who beat who to win the Tour in 1997. It’s an opportunity to reminisce about “a great win”, one that included a gesture in honour of his young daughter.
Maialen Stephens, now a biomedical engineer, was born shortly before the Tour de France in 1997. As he crossed the line, he interlocked his fingers and made a rocking-the-cradle gesture.
His smile was as broad as Popeye’s after a can of spinach and there was a general sense of satisfaction, not just for Neil, but for many in the peloton who appreciated that – this time, finally – The Worker had become The Winner.
By then, Neil had been racing as a professional in Europe for 10 years. It wasn’t the easiest starts to a sporting career but he loves cycling and, all this time later, remains an integral part of the community.
I caught up with Neil before the stage to Colmar and asked for his recollections of the day and how that win impacted his life.
“It was a bit of a strange day,” he explained, standing outside the UAE Team Emirate bus after having just had the pre-race meeting. “I was actually just telling the guys about it…”
It is a lesson in perseverance and that was the reason ‘Stevo’ offered an anecdote of his own Tour stage win from 22 years ago, to the riders on the team for which he now works.
“I try to tell my riders today that they should never lose their spirit, or their hope of going for a stage win.”
Neil knows what it’s like to feel flat, complacent, uninspired. He doesn’t show that often, for he is usually particularly jovial but there’s also a serious side to him but one thing that never changes is his passion for bike racing. And his ever-optimistic approach helped yield the most famous win of his career.
“That day, I was really tired. We’d just come out of the Alps. The Tour was coming towards a close and I really didn’t feel like doing much.
“I just wanted to survive through the final stages so, on a day I really wasn’t expecting to get in the break, I finally got in the break. I soon realised that it was too big, so I attacked and it went down to a group of 12. And then one thing led to another…”
He laughs and nods at the memory, then adds: “It was a fantastic win.
“Obviously, I tried to create the moves realising that everyone else was a big faster than me so I was making sure I could try to get away in those last few kilometres.
“In the last 500 metres, when I realised the win was within my hands, I thought it was too big a moment just to keep to myself. I wanted to dedicate it to my wife and my baby, the only two in my little family at that stage.
“It was fantastic to be able to share that with my family and the Australian fans.”
Until then, the only Australian to win at the Tour was Phil Anderson, since then there have been many. But back in 1997, as Neil says, “It was such a big thing for Australian cycling.”
Impact of victory: a new house!
A stage win at the Tour does change the life of a bike rider. So, I asked Neil, what happened because of his victory in Colmar? Did he make a hell of a lot more money? Did he enjoy benefits because of how it built his reputation? What was the effect?
“I’d actually just been out to see a new housing development in my town that was coming up and I realised that it was pretty expensive,” he says about 1997. “I had a bit of a bonus in my contract for that year for the stage win, nd that bonus helped me get into the house that I live in today.
“So that was a direct impact on my life.
“Obviously, being known as a worker in the cycling world – that was what I think is what characterised my riding style – but the win in Colmar was the biggest, most famous victory of mine.
“It was really nice to have that in the bag to say, ‘Yeah, I’m a stage winner of the Tour de France.’ It is nice and special even though I’m probably more proud of the work that I did for my leaders over the years.”
Coincidental win, coincidental promotion
“There is a really funny story being the 1997 win,” continues Neil about the events in Colmar. “There was a publicity company which had been contracted to promote the stage into Colmar. Out of all the thousands of cycling photos there are in the world, the publicity company selected a photo and put it on posters all around the town. It stated whatever date it as that the Tour de France was coming to town (23 July 1997), and you wouldn’t believe it: that one photo was me! I was on the poster.
“So, when I won that day, I was on the podium with the Mayor of the town and he just couldn’t believe it that I was standing there with him.
“I didn’t know why he couldn’t believe it but then he showed me a photo of the poster, and there’s was me, on the poster.
“Basically it looked like: ‘Come to Colmar and watch Neil Stephens win!’
“The town gave me one of those posters, I don’t know where it is now, but it was a really funny quirk of fate really.”
Lessons from a peer in 2019
On Monday, one of the other sports directors from UAE Team Emirates, Allan Peiper, started his fifth round of chemotherapy. Neil Stephens has not worked with his compatriot before despite basically having lived parallel lives for three or four decades.
To conclude our chat, I asked ‘Stevo’ how that relationship is in 2019 and what he has taken from the way Peiper is managing his cancer?
“There are two separate answers,” he replied. “Firstly, coming into the UAE team is a new chapter in my life and being able to have Allan Peiper on board with me is one of the most positive parts of the move.
“I’m really enjoying working with him and sharing views and opinions.
“Every day we’re in contact with each other and I really appreciate his support, his friendship, and I wouldn’t change this for anything. This is a really sweet period of my life and a lot of it is thanks to a relationship that has been rekindled this year, with Allan Peiper.
“The second thing is not only directed towards Allan Peiper, it’s directed to all different people who have different problems in life…
“Sometimes we complain because… you know, you’ve got too much Isostar in your bidon. Or maybe you complain because your pillow wasn’t quite the right firmness.
“And then you look at what Allan is going through now – or consider what other people are going through in life… and I think we should all have a good look at ourselves and say, ‘Look, be content with what you’ve got. Life could maybe be a little bit better but it certainly could be a bit worse.’
“And so, I’m with Allan on his personal battle now.
“There are a lot of people going through a lot of hard times, so please enjoy the Tour de France and know that although there’s a bit of a rough patch in life sometimes, with a positive outlook like what we’ve seen from Allan, it’ll get better.”