By Peter Joffre Nye, Special to VeloNews
Al Stiller, a leader in U.S. road and track racing from the late 1940s to the early 1960s and who had witnessed one of the Tour de France’s epic finishes, died April 20 in Boulder, Colorado. He was 80 and suffered from heart problems.
Chicago born and bred, Stiller recalled in a 1991 interview that he became intrigued with cycling as a youngster in the late 1920s after watching six-day racers whirling around a steeply banked wooden velodrome in Chicago Stadium. “I joined a local club in 1939, and won my first race—a 400-yard event on the grass in a park. I was 16. There was no holding back.”
Like others of his generation, Stiller had to suspend his personal ambitions after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the United States declared war. He entered the Army and trained as a machine gunner, pulling duty stateside. He was mustered out following the allied victories of 1945 and attended the University of Utah on the G.I. Bill.
“It was a convenient way to be a bike bum and skier,” he said. He paid his expenses to compete at the 1947 world championships in Paris on the Parc Des Princes outdoor velodrome. He spent five weeks racing in Paris. “They were killer races,” he said. “It was a big track, 500 meters a lap, made of smooth cement that was pink. Guys who raced there were hungry. There was a sprint every lap. You’d really tear your guts out to race.”
The experience helped him earn a spot on the 1948 U.S. cycling team that went to the London Olympics. He rode the tandem and pursuit race, and afterward remained in Europe with fellow Olympian Jack Heid.
“We raced a lot in Belgium—in Ghent, Brussels, and Antwerp,” Stiller said. “Jack and I went to the worlds in Amsterdam, then up to Copenhagen,” he said. Decades before corporate sponsorship and support from a U.S. national team, they lived by their wits. “We had to grub along. But we won some races on the indoor tracks and got by.”
He returned to Chicago in early 1948, bringing a new road bike equipped with an innovative four-speed rear derailleur. Because of his reputation, Stiller’s riding a road bike persuaded others to change from one-speed track bikes still favored by American racers.
Stiller embarked on a string of eight state Illinois state titles. State and national championships then were determined by omniums, composed of four events from the quarter-mile up to 25 miles. In 1950 and 1951 he won the 10-mile points races in the nationals.The Midwest’s big event, which lasted 30 years, was the 50-miler from Elgin to Chicago. Stiller won it in 1954. His biggest win was the 168-mile race from Quebec to Montreal, the North America’s longest bicycle race.
Pat Murphy, who competed in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and married Stiller’s niece, Marlene, points out that another important event Stiller won was the 150-miler from Winnepeg to Kenora, Ontario.
“Al was a track rider and a damned good road rider,” Murphy notes. “He was always a congenial guy. “Everyone who met Al became his buddy.”
After graduating with a degree in business management in1954, Stiller made the team for the Pan American Games in Mexico City, where he competed in the team pursuit and the road race.
“He was a fixture at the Northbrook, Illinois, track,” Murphy notes. “He raced in the Tuesday night races from 1947 into the late 1950s.”
Murphy and Stiller were unique North American cyclists who rode professionally in the 1961 Madison Square Garden international six-day event in New York City. Stiller’s ride ended in a crash that dislocated his right shoulder.
From 1960 to 1980, Stiller operated a bicycle shop in Chicago. In 1964 he married Berty Berchtold, who survives him. They moved to Boulder in 1988.
Looking back on his career, he called his Paris experience the peak of his career. “The atmosphere of Paris was extraordinary.”
In the race of races, the Tour de France, one of its most spectacular finishes—even by the Tour’s standards—was in 1947, the first after a six-year hiatus because of World War II. Frenchman Jean Robic had started the final day’s stage of 172 miles in fifth place overall, four minutes down on race leader Italian Pierre Brambilla. Robic had attacked on a hill early and broke away with two riders on the stage from Rouen to the finish on the Parc des Princes.
Stiller had participated in a velodrome race program and stayed to witness the Tour de France’s conclusion. Parc des Princes grandstand and bleachers accommodated 30,000 spectators, but that day Stiller was among 35,000 in attendance. They heard radio reports broadcast that Robic’s breakaway had gained 13 minutes, which catapulted the Frenchman to usurp the lead.
“It was so emotional, it made your hair stand on end,” Stiller said. “There wasn’t any empty space left. About a million more people were waiting to get in. Being there on the day that Robic won, seeing the riders enter the track through the tunnel that took them in from the street, and hearing the ovation that made your ears hurt after a while, was tremendous. For that day alone, it was worth the fare.”