Mardis Cyclistes Celebrates 40 Years
Last Hurrah for Tino Rossi?
Joseph “Tino” Rossi, now 77, has been running the Mardis Cyclistes de Lachine (MCL) Criterium stage races around Lasalle Park for more than half of his life. Now in its 40th season, the series has recently seen the injection of $250,000 from the City of Montreal, without which Rossi admits the MCL might no longer exist. The year 2017 is, of course, Canada’s 150th anniversary, as well as Montreal’s 375th and Lachine’s 350th, so this is probably a good year for Rossi to pass the torch to his successors.
Rossi was born near Rome, Italy, in a country where cycling rivals soccer as the national sport. His family immigrated to Canada when Rossi was a young boy, bringing traditions of the Old Country with them.
Rossi and some cycling friends “discovered Lasalle Park by accident” one evening in 1978, and realized it was a natural circuit for “a Crit.” That first evening, Rossi used chalk to mark the start/finish line as seven cyclists raced the one-mile circuit.
There were complaints from motorists after that first race, and Rossi was called in the next day to see the local mayor, Guy Descary. Instead of being told to cease and desist, the mayor asked Rossi, “Would you like to do it again?” and lent the full assistance of his municipality. All Lachine mayors over 40 years have been supportive, but Rossi is most lavish in praising the current borough mayor, Claude Dauphin.
What all the mayors saw is that the MCL could help give Lachine a better image. Formerly a down-and-out part of Montreal known for drugs and crime, Lachine is now a vibrant place where people are buying homes. The area’s new reputation is based in part on bicycling.
On the surface, the MCL is a series of races with a feature 50km Criterium held over 10 Tuesday evenings each summer. But Rossi has leveraged this into something much bigger, into a magical race that has achieved cult status. “I added on the decorum and ceremonies,” explains Rossi. During the countdown to the weekly races, he excitedly shouts to the pack, “Are you ready to rumble?”
Right from its beginning in 1978, the races were fast and competitive. In the early years, Ontario cyclists such as Steve Bauer, Jocelyn Lovell, Gord Singleton and Alex Stieda often made the trip to Montreal, racing against such Quebec riders as Louis Garneau, Pierre Harvey and Claude Langlois. All of these cyclists went on to win great acclaim in their cycling careers, testimony to what they learned sprinting around Lasalle Park.
In recent years, Quebecers riding Pro in Europe, names such as Antoine Duchesne (Direct Energie), Hugo Houle (AG2R), François Parisien (formerly Argos-Shimano) and David Veilleux (formerly Europcar), have all been regulars here. Women riders, such as Joelle
Numainville (Cylance Pro), have obtained special derogations to race here with the men.
The fame of the MCL extends far beyond Canada; this summer, two Pro Continental teams from France will be making appearances at the MCL, as well as the U19 National team from New Zealand on their way to the Tour de l’Abitibi.
Last summer saw Jean-François Laroche win his sixth championship among the senior men, rivalling the record set by Yannick Cojan in 1999. The suspense is whether Laroche can pull off another season title this summer. “We didn’t plan this,” explains Rossi. Adding to the appeal is that here you can see part-timers such as Laroche [a lawyer by day] competing against Pro cyclists and sometimes winning.
In 1980, Rossi opened his bike shop, Bicyclettes Rossi in Lachine, selling it in 2000 as part of a divorce settlement. The new owner,
Owen Eastmond, insisted on keeping Rossi’s name on store.
Now 17 years later, customers still walk in asking to see Rossi. “I don’t regret selling the store, but I do regret selling the building. It is now worth $1 million.”
Ironically, his namesake bike shop is no longer involved with running Rossi’s races, but the competition a few blocks away, Cycles Néron is. The Néron family owns five stores throughout Greater Montreal and was scheduled to take over the MCL in 2017. But the Nérons invited Rossi for dinner after the 2016 season, saying that they were not ready, and begged him to stay on for one more season.
Rossi looks well now, but had a hip replacement in 2014. “It’s not easy passing the torch if you want to do a good job; otherwise people will suffer.” Rossi claims to be working up to 16 hours a day to ensure that the MCL series goes well this summer. He jokes that it will take five people to take over his job running the MCL.
The MCL started with volunteer labour, and saw Rossi put in money from his own pocket for the first 15 years or so. Today, the 10-stage series has some 60 employees and benefits from “major-event” status conferred by municipal authorities. Rossi’s 400th stage will come to a close at the 2017 grand finale on Aug. 15. While he is coy, Rossi hints that there will be some surprises that evening.
Asked what his life will be like after handing over “his baby” to the Néron family, Rossi had a quick answer: “I will play with my [six] grandchildren and have them come see me in Florida. I want to stay closer to my family, bringing them every Tuesday to the MCL, having a glass of wine and watching the races.”
Still, Pedal suspects he will not be content to merely watch the races.
Joseph “Tino” Rossi, 77, with checkered flag in hand, turned the Mardis Cyclistes de Lachine Criterium series, celebrating its 40th season, into magical races that have achieved cult status.
(l-r): Joseph ‘Tino’ Rossi (Mardis Cyclistes), Denis Coderre (Montreal Mayor), Claude Dauphin (Lachine Mayor)