The Québec and Mon­tréal races feel like the end of the sea­son and for some rid­ers they are two of the last chances to res­cue their sea­son. Pro­cy­cling went to take the tem­per­a­ture at these pop­u­lar and his­toric races

Procycling - - CONTENTS - Writer So­phie Hur­com

Canada’s two World­Tour races mix a rich his­tory with a re­laxed end-of-sea­son vibe, as Pro­cy­cling dis­cov­ered

The 1974 World Cham­pi­onships marked a sig­nif­i­cant mo­ment in cy­cling. Not just be­cause it was Eddy Mer­ckx’s third and fi­nal rain­bow jersey and was the first time a rider won the Giro, Tour and Worlds in the same sea­son, but also be­cause it was the first time the Worlds was held out­side Europe. The city-cen­tre cir­cuit was in Mon­tréal, Canada, cen­tred on the Mont Royale climb in the city. It was here that Mer­ckx mer­ci­lessly killed French dreams by de­liv­er­ing the coup de grâce to Bernard Thévenet’s 100km es­cape, and shad­owed Ray­mond Pouli­dor’s at­tack on the fi­nal lap, eas­ily dis­tanc­ing him to in the sprint. The race also proved a break­through mo­ment for North Amer­i­can cy­cling. Canada had suc­cess­fully hosted the big­gest rid­ers and one of the sport’s block­buster events and the route had served up one of the most ex­cit­ing edi­tions. Forty-four years on, Mon­tréal’s Mont Royale cir­cuit re­mains the main­stay of Cana­dian cy­cling. To­day it hosts the Grand Prix Mon­tréal, the se­cond of two one-day World­Tour races, along­side the GP Québec, that makeup the coun­try’s flag­ship events.

One of those present at the 1974 Worlds was Serge Arse­nault. Back then he was a young sports broad­caster thrust into com­men­tat­ing du­ties. Nowa­days, he’s a me­dia mag­nate and the pres­i­dent of both races. When Pro­cy­cling meets him, he is re­lax­ing in the Churchill Suite of the Château Fron­tenac, the grand 19th cen­tury cas­tle-style ho­tel that hosts the World­Tour car­a­van while it’s in Québec. The ho­tel’s tur­rets are a defin­ing fea­ture of the Québec City sky­line and tourists pile through its brassy re­volv­ing doors to soak up some of the his­tory to which it has been party. In 1943, it hosted the Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter, Win­ston Churchill, US Pres­i­dent Franklin D Roo­sevelt and oth­ers as they laid the ground­work for the D-Day in­va­sion. Arse­nault re­clines in his chair, cham­pagne flute in hand. He has made the Churchill suite his home from home dur­ing the eight years of the Québec and Mon­tréal Grand Prix’s ex­is­tence so far, and jokes he has his arm­chair turned to face a pic­ture of Churchill on the wall so he can look to him for guid­ance. Arse­nault also or­gan­ised the GP des Ameriques, which ran be­tween 1988 and 1992 on the Mon­tréal cir­cuit.

In the years since they launched in 2010, the Québec and Mon­tréal races have be­come firm favourites with the rid­ers. Their rolling cir­cuits, pep­pered with short, sharp climbs, mean they’re es­pe­cially pop­u­lar with the top Clas­sics rid­ers who can’t find the Worlds prepa­ra­tion they’re look­ing for at the Vuelta a Es­paña or the Tour of Bri­tain. Greg Van Aver­maet, Michael Matthews and John De­genkolb were on this year’s start-lines, though Peter Sa­gan, a former win­ner of both races, was ab­sent. Usu­ally, in years when the Worlds is a more re­al­is­tic tar­get, more men from the spring turn up.

As well as be­ing two of just three World­Tour races held in North Amer­ica – the seven-stage Tour of Cal­i­for­nia be­ing the other – the Cana­dian races are un­usual in the UCI’s flag­ship race se­ries in that they are both held on city­cen­tre cir­cuits. That was a con­scious de­ci­sion made by Arse­nault, a self­pro­claimed “mar­ket­ing man”, who wanted to en­sure they could draw big crowds to max­imise the races’ ex­po­sure and spon­sor­ship po­ten­tial.

“We have a golden rule in mar­ket­ing: don’t ask the peo­ple to come to you, go where the peo­ple are,” Arse­nault says. “We have to be clever with the prod­uct that we of­fer. We don’t sell tick­ets and the sta­dium that we have is granted by the cit­i­zens. Se­condly, spec­ta­tors are the gas for the rid­ers. You need spec­ta­tors to per­form. Third, you have to re­spect the sport [and cre­ate a good route]. It will be im­pos­si­ble to or­gan­ise such a race in Toronto, as it is flat. Then all these things come to­gether.”

“We don’t sell tick­ets and the sta­dium that we have is granted by the cit­i­zens. Spec­ta­tors are the gas for the rid­ers”

The GP Québec couldn’t be more city cen­tral. Start­ing and fin­ish­ing in the mid­dle of the tourist hotspot of Old Québec, the pelo­ton heads out west through the lush, green Bat­tle­fields Park. On the day of the race, the park is a ver­dant haven un­der the early au­tumn sun­shine and it’s dot­ted with fam­i­lies stop­ping to en­joy the race go by. The rid­ers drop down to the level of the Saint Lawrence river and trace a route along Cham­plain Boule­vard. Next, comes the steep Côte de la Mon­tagne back into the city. The race passes along the shop-lined Rue Sain­tJean and through the shadow of the Château Frotenac. The ris­ing fin­ish­ing straight, along Grand Al­lée East in front of the city’s Par­lia­ment build­ing, is packed with fans all day. Some are decked in Ly­cra and shep­herd their bikes around. Other spec­ta­tors look like they’re hav­ing their first chance en­counter with a bike race and de­light in watch­ing it go by. Some stop and en­joy an al­fresco lunch in the restau­rants that line the north­ern end of the Grand Al­lée, near the fin­ish.

“We pre­fer to be around a crowd, we ac­tu­ally want to be around peo­ple that want to see cy­cling,” says Ka­tushaAlpecin’s Nathan Haas, as he waits to go up to the podium to sign-on be­fore the race. “The nicest thing is when you come to a race and it’s a cir­cuit, and the cir­cuit is cov­ered in peo­ple. It’s a whole dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence be­cause if you come past 12 or 16 times a day peo­ple love it, they ac­tu­ally get to see what bike rac­ing is re­ally about.”

“It’s al­ways fun rac­ing. It’s nice es­pe­cially for the crowds and you get good crowds in both events,” agrees Mitchel­ton-Scott’s Mat Hay­man, who is mak­ing his fourth ap­pear­ance in Canada. “It’s a nice way to show off these cities and I think it’s at­trac­tive for Québec and Mon­tréal. They know that part of the rea­son peo­ple want to spon­sor cy­cling is from a tourism point of view, and the shots you get from Québec makes any­one want to visit Québec City.”

The bright blue skies on both race days in­evitably help the crowd sizes swell. The Mon­tréal cir­cuit feels more tucked away, but that’s be­cause of the city’s greater size. Mont Royale Park might be the beat­ing heart for out­doorsy Mon­treal­ers, but in the dis­tance lies the port and down­town sky­scrapers. Diehard fans min­gled with in­ci­den­tal visi­tors around the foot of the art deco mon­u­ment to Sir Ge­orgeE­ti­enne Cartier which is right next to the fin­ish. Long af­ter the race had

“If you come past 12 or 16 times a day peo­ple love it, they ac­tu­ally get to see what bike rac­ing is re­ally about”

fin­ished, crowds would still be play­ing vol­ley­ball or par­tic­i­pat­ing in Mon­treal in­sti­tu­tion, the tam-tams, where the city’s bo­hemian res­i­dents gather for an im­promptu drum­ming cir­cle.

De­spite their World­Tour sta­tus, the races’ early Septem­ber slot mean they have an air of the end of term. Teams are flown to Canada from Europe for a week, but with only two race days there’s time for short train­ing rides, sight­see­ing and shop­ping around Old Québec, as well as re­lax­ing around the Fron­tenac.

The races are also a last chance sa­loon for rid­ers look­ing to end the sea­son strongly. In­evitably, there are those build­ing up to­wards the Worlds, but for oth­ers, Canada is the start of wind­ing­down to the off-sea­son. For some, like those at BMC which is chang­ing dras­ti­cally in 2019, or As­tana’s Michael Val­gren who is trans­fer­ring to Di­men­sion Data, it’s a clos­ing hit-out for their cur­rent teams be­fore a win­ter of change.

The mood, plus the na­ture of the cir­cuits, has an im­pact on the way the rac­ing un­folds. “The big high­lights are gone, it’s more of a re­laxed at­mos­phere on one side and then a spe­cific tar­get [for oth­ers],” says Di­men­sion Data’s di­recteur sportif, Rolf Aldag. “You are not re­ally, re­ally turn­ing a good sea­son into a bad sea­son here, so it’s freer. It’s more open.”

In­deed, be­fore the GP Mon­tréal, around the white pit tents pitched on the me­dian strip next to the start, it would be hard to tell this is the pre­am­ble to one of the sport’s top-level races at first glance. Rid­ers shel­ter from the sun­shine on fold-up camp chairs, slurp­ing drinks and lazily slap­ping on sun cream.

The rid­ers who thrive in Canada are those en­joy­ing a pur­ple patch late in the sea­son. This year, Michael Matthews em­u­lated his com­pa­triot, Si­mon Ger­rans, by win­ning both Québec and Mon­tréal. They were much-needed morale-boost­ers af­ter a sea­son rid­dled by ill­ness and in­jury. Things be­gan to click for the Aus­tralian, who has twice fin­ished on the podium in Québec, in Au­gust, when he won the fi­nal stage of the Binck­Bank Tour. He came to Canada in form and one of the rid­ers who wanted a good per­for­mance. Matthews’s con­fi­dence seemed to grow af­ter he beat Greg van Aver­maet in the sprint in Québec. In Mon­tréal, de­spite sit­ting in sixth around the fi­nal u-turn with 500 me­tres to go, he un­leashed a sprint up the Av­enue du Parc even more pow­er­ful than two days be­fore and pipped Sonny Col­brelli on the line. Matthews was clutch­ing both his tro­phies as he stepped onto the plane home 24 hours later.

Sim­i­larly, Jasper Stuyven, who was third in Québec af­ter a sea­son of near misses, stepped straight off the plane home from Canada to vic­to­ries in the GP de Wal­lonie and GP Jef Scherens in his na­tive Bel­gium. Mean­while Bora-Hans­grohe’s Peter Ken­naugh, who has en­dured a frus­trat­ing 2018 and missed much of the early sea­son, al­most scup­pered the sprint­ers’ party in Québec with a solo at­tack on the penul­ti­mate lap that came within 300 me­tres of vic­tory.

The sig­nif­i­cance of the Québec and Mon­tréal races seems all the more im­por­tant in 2018, given North Amer­i­can cy­cling is go­ing through a re­ces­sion. Three of the re­gion’s ma­jor ProCon­ti­nen­tal teams, Jelly Belly Cy­cling, Unit­edHealth­care and Holowesko close at the end of this sea­son. The Tour of Al­berta folded this year af­ter go­ing bank­rupt. For

Cana­dian rid­ers it’s a dif­fi­cult en­vi­ron­ment. Kevin Field, the na­tional coach of the Cana­dian team, sug­gests it could take years for the re­gion to re­cover if the real­ity turns out as bad as it ap­pears. “What’s hap­pen­ing right now is re­ally bad; it’s a bad mo­ment over­all for North Amer­ica,” he says.

The GPs Québec and Mon­tréal sit at the top of a pre­car­i­ous rac­ing scene in North Amer­ica. They are re­lied on more than ever to show­case rac­ing and rid­ers on the con­ti­nent. Arse­nault is aware of how un­sta­ble the sport can be and has re­peat­edly preached the need for the stake­hold­ers – race or­gan­is­ers, gov­ern­ing bod­ies and teams – to work to­gether to cre­ate new ways of gen­er­at­ing rev­enue. This year, he met with UCI Pres­i­dent David Lap­par­tient in Mon­tréal to pro­pose his idea of a 16-round, one-day race World Cup made up of races spread around the world, to re­vi­talise the cal­en­dar.

“One of the things that peo­ple have to un­der­stand is that money does not come from the TV any more. You are just think­ing in the 60s, es­pe­cially for cy­cling be­cause we have no prod­uct to

of­fer and no qual­ity to guar­an­tee,” Arse­nault says. “What we need is air time, in­ter­na­tional air time, which we don’t have.”

Young Cana­dian rid­ers seemed all too aware of the sig­nif­i­cance of the races and were among the most ac­tive in both. Six of the 10 rid­ers in the races’ two main break­aways were Cana­dian. Along with the Tour Down Un­der, these are the only World­Tour races that al­low na­tional teams to par­tic­i­pate at cy­cling’s high­est level, a fac­tor Field de­scribes as “ex­cep­tional, ex­tra­or­di­nary and cru­cial to the de­vel­op­ment” of Cana­dian rid­ers.

Among those in the break­away in Mon­tréal was James Pic­coli, a na­tive of the city whose fam­ily had set up a large fan club on the first cor­ner of the Côte Camil­lien-Houde. “This is the road that I use al­most ev­ery day for train­ing when I’m home. When the race first came here, ev­ery time I rode that road I’d think maybe one day I’d be in the race. This year it fi­nally hap­pened and it was su­per spe­cial,” he says.

“I do most of my rac­ing in the States and some rac­ing here,” he adds. “North Amer­ica this year is hav­ing a pretty tough year, a lot of teams are fold­ing, races are be­ing can­celled. We still have a lot of su­per-strong rac­ing as you can tell – we’re prob­a­bly 15, 20, lo­cal, North Amer­i­cans here and we can all com­pete at the high­est level. Hope­fully in a cou­ple of years the in­fra­struc­ture will be laid out and we can com­pete a lit­tle bit more.”

Yet back in 1974, when Mer­ckx beat Pouli­dor on the Eduoard Mont-Petit Boule­vard and added an­other story to cy­cling’s le­gend, few would have thought that al­most 50 years later, the high­est level of bike rac­ing would still be tak­ing place on a car­bon copy of that course. De­spite the doom­mon­ger­ing of fold­ing teams, clos­ing races and a sport in gen­eral peril, two of cy­cling’s least talked about prop­er­ties are its re­silience and abil­ity to re­gen­er­ate. So while Québec and Mon­tréal look like bea­cons in a storm, and no one know what form rac­ing will take 50 years from now, it’s a fair bet rac­ing in Canada will keep on keep­ing on. Pic­coli crashed on the last climb, but you wouldn’t know it for the big grin he wore at the fin­ish of his home race.

The city- cen­tre race cir­cuits means the fans are never far away from the rid­ers

The Cana­dian na­tional team was among the most ac­tive in the break­aways

Close but so far for Van Aver­maet, who left with two podium places but no vic­tory

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