FEATURE: GP QUÉBEC AND MONTRÉAL
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
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