If you can’t be the strongest cyclist — be the smartest, said Alex Stieda, the first North American to capture the yellow jersey at the Tour de France.
Stieda, who rode with 36 amateur cyclists during Saturday’s fundraising Wellness Ride from Red Deer to Delburne and back, recalled it was his brains and not his legs that allowed him to lead the pack for one day in 1986 during the world’s most prestigious bike race.
“I would say it was having a strategic awareness and being able to take advantage of opportunities,” that allowed him to advance, said the former professional cyclist. “Even though I was never the strongest cyclist, I was able to use my energy at the right time.”
Stieda — who still considers winning the yellow jersey the highlight of his life, after his marriage and children — has come to believe that being a smart cyclist also means always wearing a bike helmet.
Since helmets have become de rigueur for professional cyclists after two competitors died in the 1990s from head injuries, the 50-year-old is alarmed whenever he sees parents riding bare-headed beside their helmeted children.
Besides being terrible role models, Stieda said these parents are literally taking their lives in their hands.
“They think, oh well, I’m a good bike rider, I don’t need a helmet . . . Well, I consider myself to be a pretty good rider — I’ve been cycling for some 35 years,” added the Edmonton resident, who also won a bronze medal at the 1982 Australian Commonwealth Games.
Yet, he went flying over his handlebars after the front wheel of his mountain bike entered a rut recently. “When my head hit the ground, my bike helmet cracked in seven places,” said Stieda, who believes this prevented him from suffering a brain injury.
Berry Architects owner George Berry, an avid cyclist who sponsored the fundraiser, also stressed that bike helmets save lives. “I was just in an accident four weeks ago,” said Berry, whose helmet also absorbed the impact.
Berry “jumped” at the opportunity to sponsor the Wellness Ride, saying it promotes fitness, bike safety and benefits two great groups — the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and the Central Alberta Brain Injury Society (CABIS).
Cyclists from Central Alberta and as far as Calgary gathered at the Michener Centre staging grounds to prepare for either a one-way 50-km trip to Delburne, or a 100-km round trip.
Everyone had their own reasons for participating — from supporting a good cause, to enjoying the exercise, to getting to ride with Stieda.
Brenda McGillis, a social worker with the Halvar Jonson Centre for Brain Injury in Ponoka, was doing the ride for her clients — and in memory of her husband Armand McGillis, who sustained a work-related brain injury by inhaling hydrogen sulphide in 1989.
Although Armand was unable to hold down a job, he made a lot of friends because “he was always helping people out,” said McGillis. But bad headaches, a lack of memory, and being at loose ends without a work life led Armand to struggle with depression for two decades, before he committed suicide in 2010.
“We’re dealing with it . . . but it takes a toll on the family,” added McGillis, who wants to support the mental health and brain injury groups for trying to make life easier for many area residents.
Marion McGuigan, executive-director of the local CMHA office, said anyone can get a mental illnesses.
She believes the cycling fundraiser is a good fit with her group’s mandate because “getting outside in the fresh air and getting some exercise helps all of us feel better.”
CABIS representative Greg Neiman became involved with the brain injury group after his teenage son was beaten into a coma by assailants on a Red Deer street in 1999. His son is coping well and works as a data base manager for an Edmonton firm. “He’s doing great . . .we were lucky that his recovery was steady,” said Neiman, who credits CABIS for providing a supportive environment for brain injured people who sometimes feel they have nowhere else to go. He also praised the partnership between CABIS and the CMHA.