Tour de l’Abitibi 50th Anniversary
The The 50th anniversary of the legendary Tour de l’Abitibi was held July 16-22 in northwestern Quebec, some 600 kilometres north of Montreal and 800 kilometres from Toronto, Ont.
Founded by Léandre Normand back in 1969, the event highlighted riders and the racing scene from small towns such as Amos and Val-d’or in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region, where mining for minerals such as gold and zinc is a key part of the communities. And hockey as well – lots of hockey.
But every summer for the past 50 years, the region has been overrun by Spandex, as it plays host to the iconic cycling stage race Tour de l’Abitibi for junior riders, which has become renowned around the globe. The towns embrace it and come out by the hundreds to volunteer and line the roadways to cheer on the next generation of cyclists.
Cycling hero Pierre Harvey, honorary president of this year’s 50th-anniversary Tour, credits the race with giving him the confidence to launch his career, which included competing at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal before competing in the 1984 Winter Olympics. Harvey was the first Canadian male athlete to compete in both a winter and summer Games.
“This was my first big result, and it convinced me that I had some potential,” said Harvey. “From there, I became more confident and invested all I had to get as far as I could. Soon after, I succeeded in participating in four Olympic Games, but my journey began in Abitibi. I went to school in Abitibi to learn about cycling.”
As the only North American stop out of eight competitions that comprise the UCI Juniors Nations Cup, its humble beginning saw 52 cyclists on the start line for three stages. Fifty years later, more than 4,000 riders from 45 countries have pedalled their lanky cabooses through the northern region of Quebec dotted with small towns.
The famous seven-stage race has included competitors from outside Quebec since 1973, and European teams have been attending since the early 1980s. In 1986, The Netherlands’ Michael Zanoli, the reigning junior world champion, won the Tour. According to Marc Lemay, former president of Cycling Canada, the Tour de l’Abitibi began as a season-end race similar to the three-stage Cyclo-Nordo Challenge, already organized by Normand and his brother Yvan, with cyclists from the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region competing. Soon after, teams from Montreal and Ontario joined in, as well as other Quebec riders.
In 1981, the first international team from France participated and the Tour received its first UCI sanction, becoming a juniors-only race. The original format was point-to-point, but a “star” system was later adopted that “likely saved the Tour,” said Lemay, even though he admits he wasn’t in favour of it at first.
Under the new “star” system, all stages finished in the same town,
which acted as the host for that particular year. With four towns involved – Rouyn-Noranda, Amos, Val-d’Or, La Sarre – and a two-year mandate for each, the Tour was guaranteed for eight more years.
The Tour de l’Abitibi debuted in 1969 in the town of Amos, with Gerald Rocheleau crossing the finish line first. Decades later, the list of Tour winners and participants has grown to include some of the world’s greatest cyclists, from top Canadians Steve Bauer and Alex Stieda (winner in 1980) to France’s Laurent Jalabert and Americans Bobby Julich and Andy Hampsten.
For Rocheleau, his trophy from Tour de l’Abitibi is the only one he’s kept after all these years. “It was the first time I was taking part in such a big race. There were people sitting in patio chairs around the course to look at us pedaling,” Rocheleau says. “I still have the trophy that I won there, and it stayed for a long time in my kids’ bedroom. I got rid of my other trophies, but not this one.”
The race has not only become a unique competition in Canada, but also a crucial one for young riders who dream of making their mark in the world of international cycling, according to Louis Barbeau, director-general of Quebec’s Cycling Federation (FQSC).
“The Tour of Abitibi has been and still is an essential event in the development of young riders for 50 years. For most junior riders who have participated in this event, it has been their first contact with the international scene and a chance to measure themselves against some of the best athletes in the world,” says Barbeau. “We are very fortunate to have such an event in Quebec and in Canada and very grateful to the organization that has relentlessly worked hard over the years to offer an amazing race to our athletes.”
The crowds and the volunteers are part of what makes the race so memorable and so thrilling for the young riders often cutting their teeth on their first races with international competition. When you start a race with passionate people at the helm, this positively influences its race volunteers and its surrounding region.
Such is the case with the Tour de l’Abitibi, which began with founder Normand and a group of cycling zealots from the Abitibi area. “We can say that it’s about a bunch of passionate people, not to say maniacs, crazy about cycling, who, at this given time, started to focus on something other than hockey,” says Normand. “I was avidly reading cycling magazines, and we then decided in a joint move to get together and organize a stage race and showcase genuine Abitibian experiences. It just kept on expanding.”
Over the years, many of the most notable North American cyclists attended the race, with the exception of Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong. For Steida, the first North American to wear the Tour de France yellow jersey and winner of the Tour de l’Abitibi back in 1980, it was a chance to compete against the best and helped hook him on cycling. “Winning Abitibi 38 years ago feels like a dream,” said Steida. “It was so long ago, we [the British Columbia provincial team] really didn’t know what we were doing then. We were just racing hard and aggressive every day. Back then, we were restricted to a 50x15, so my track-racing background helped me a lot. My hockey experience gave me the power. I had great teammates with me who absolutely sacrificed for me. I can’t thank them enough. It was that feeling of shared accomplishment that drew me deeper into the sport.”
For Louis Garneau, it was a huge stepping stone in his cycling career. “The Tour of Abitibi was one of my first big races as a junior, in 1975 and 1976, and I will never forget the experience. The Tour de l’Abitibi has always been a big, well-organized race, and teams from all over are participating year after year. This race did a lot for me to gain experience and helped propel me to the forefront of racing. My junior years were very formative and launched my career all the way to the Olympics. They did the same for my son William, who raced in Abitibi in 2007 and again in 2008 as part of Team Canada – on his way to the World Championships. Abitibi was a big part of both our junior careers, and I want to send them my warmest congratulations on the occasion of their 50th anniversary, a true milestone in a great organization’s history. Happy 50th, and all the best for the next 50 editions,” said Garneau.
The event has played an important role for Cycling Canada as well. “Abitibi has long played a pivotal role in the development of some of Canada’s best male cyclists. We are fortunate and incredibly grateful to have such a passionate community that has sustained such a successful and impactful event,” commented Matthew Jeffries, interim CEO and director of marketing at Cycling Canada.
The Abitibi-Temiscamingue has been a proud partner since the beginning. “It’s a unique event in North America. In addition to highlighting the cyclists’ next generation, it has also made our region, Abitibi-Temiscamingue, shine for 50 years,” said Emilien Larochelle, the chairman of Tourisme Abitibi-Témiscamingue.
Released for its 50th-anniversary celebrations, a book entitled La Route des Champions chronicles each and every race as well as the history of the event, penned by Normand, along with Olivier Grondin and Emelie Rivard-Boudreau. On July 21, a tribute evening was held that included the first five nominees inducted to the Tour de l’Abitibi Hall of Fame (see page 30). Earlier in the day, a Tour of Legends race featured participants from the past 49 years of racing.
For Normand, who managed the race for the first 10 years, the Tour’s growth and evolution are top of mind. “What makes me the most proud is that it’s still there 50 years later,” he says. “For me, it’s this longevity, rather than the international scope and reputation it has acquired throughout the years, that matters most.”
For more information, visit www.tourabitibi.qc.ca.
Inaugural Tour winner Gerald Rocheleau still has his trophy.
The legendary Tour de l’Abitibi began back in 1969.
Alex Stieda won the Tour in 1980.
Tour de l’Abitibi founder Léandre Normand
Louis Garneau: a huge stepping stone in his cycling career.
Legendary Pierre Harvey, winner in 1975 and honorary president of this year’s 50th-anniversary Tour.
Hundreds of proud volunteers are the backbone of the Tour.