Tour de l’Abitibi 50th An­niver­sary

Pedal Magazine - - Contents - by Ron John­son

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.

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