Southern Spincatches up with the first non-European to wear the fabledmaillot jaune, Australian Phil Anderson, who talks about that historic day atop Pla d’Adet 33 years ago, plus words from Greg LeMond, thoughts on Cadel Evans and his tip for the Vuelta aEspaña

If Australian cyclist Phil Anderson had retired after riding into the yellow jersey 33 years ago in the Pyrenees at the 68th edition of the Tour de France, his legacy in the sport was solidified. Anderson needed not accomplish another task for his palmarès to be validated.

Anderson’s achievement in 1981 was more than historic – it was monumental. While the London-born, 22-year-old Victorian, did not win the stage (six), what Anderson – riding for Peugeot at the time – did accomplish, no other non-European cyclist in 67 years of trying ever did – to earn the right to wear the fabled maillot jaune.

The next year, the 1978 Commonwealth Games road race gold medallist would record his first stage win and earn young rider classification – fifth overall.

What followed was another Tour stage win in 1992, two Giro d’Italia stage wins (1989, 1990), plus major wins at the Amstel Gold Race (1983), Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré and Tour of Suisse (1985), Paris-Tours (1986), Milano-Torino (1987), Tour de Romandie (1989), Tour of Britain (1991, 1993), Tour of Ireland (1992), Tour of Sweden (1993) and more Commonwealth gold in 1994, this time in the team time trial with teammates (Henk Vogels, Damian McDonald and Dennis Brett).

Not bad, eh?

Southern Spin recently caught up with Anderson, who had just returned from France after leading his annual cycling tour group, to discuss Poland’s Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) and his victory on that very same stage atop Pla d’Adet, 21 years after compatriot Zenon Jaskula became the first Polish rider to win a stage at the Tour.

Anderson, now 56, reflects back on that historic day and answers six questions about Pla d’Adet, the changes in cycling and his pick for this year’s Vuelta a España.

Southern Spin: Were you at Pla d’Adet when Rafal Majka came muscling up the mountain to take stage 17, and what did you make of his performance?

Phil Anderson: I was with my group and we had ridden up a bit earlier in the day and just sort of sat on a good spot. It was great sitting on the side of the road cheering all the riders as they came through. I think when he came past he was still with Pierre Rolland (Europcar) about 5km from the finish.

It brought back a lot of memories, as it was similar to my situation years ago, when I was there riding support for our leader of the Peugeot team, Jean-René Bernaudeau,and through ignorance or through lack of experience I didn’t stay back with him. He had been dropped and I was just having an exceedingly good day.

It was my first Tour de France, and my first time in the big mountains. For me I was just riding my bike.

For Rafal, he was in a situation where Contador was no longer there and he was given a chance and free rein to ride his own race, and he took the situation by the throat and took advantage of it.

SS: What do your remember of that climb, and more specifically that day 33 years ago atop that same mountain in the Pyrenees?

PA: [Pla d’Adet] certainly has got some steep pinches and that, it’s not as long as Tourmalet or some of the other famous climbs. I got to ride it again the other week; it’s certainly something that can’t be underestimated. It’s very tough; I think there are some grades of 12 to 14 per cent even though the average is substantially less.

It’s tough at the end of a long day. Back in 1981, I had never really ridden a big ride before so it was unknown territory. I had never really put myself on a climb like that. It was new for me, but maybe not for Rafal.

SS: Looking back, what do you make of the overall significance of your performance that day and becoming the first non-European to ride into yellow at the Tour?

PA: For me, I really didn’t think of it. Cycling is not really an Australian sport, certainly wasn’t back then. There wasn’t even an Australian journalist on the Tour. It may have gotten a slight mention in the Australian papers, now it’s such a global sport.

Now it’s only in hindsight that one sits back and marvels at the magnitude of what happened that day for cycling on a larger scale - not just Australian, but non-European. I was out there just riding a bike and doing the best I could to earn my pay.

SS: Do you think you get the credit you deserve for such a historic achievement, and do you think the media would handle the feat differently today?

PA: I didn’t think I was going to be a trendsetter for non-European riders. It was only after the fact that three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond comes up and says that I ‘paved the way for us buddy, for all the current riders living outside Europe.’

It’s probably a bit different for Rafal now in contemporary times as the world is a lot smaller, especially with global television and social media. When he won that stage on Pla d’Adet it’s all over Twitter and gone viral all over the world in a heartbeat.

News travelled by ship in my day! And I think they were actually sailing ships back then. It didn’t have the impact back then that it would have happened today.

The first time a South African gets a yellow jersey it’s huge. But imagine what would happen if I had accomplished that goal today.

In retrospect, it’s pretty special to me.

SS: Fellow countryman Cadel Evans became the first Australian to win the Tour in 2011, while he has not returned to that level of success since, in what appeared to be the twilight of his career in a contract year with BMC, the 37-year-old is coming off solid performances at theGiro del Trentino,Giro d’ItaliaandTour of Utah. Is there fight in that old dog yet as he preparesto race the Vueltanext week?

PA: Cadel is a crafty veteran, and while the depth at the Tour of Utah was not as great with only six of the 18 teams WorldTour classified, Evans showed great form during his two stage wins and looked strong against eventual back-to-back race winner Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp) and last year’s Vuelta winner Chris Horner (Lampre-Merida). Don’t count him out yet.

SS: So, who’s your pick for the Vuelta this year?

PA: Froome, I reckon. I think he has something to prove, but it won’t be easy as this Vuelta field is as loaded and hot as it has ever been. I’m taking another tour group to Spain for a roadside seat. I don’t want to miss this one.

Aaron S. Lee | Follow on Twitter
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