For the whole five and a half hour drive from just east of Toronto up to Montreal I was followed by a dark rain cloud. I’d get ahead of it while driving but when I stopped to grab a snack, or another cup of tea from Tim Horton’s, I’d arrive back out to the car to the sight of pouring rain, and with my bike in the back of the van it wasn’t a good sign. I was on my way up there to watch the following days Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal but also to ride the course on the Saturday afternoon and get a feel for what it was truly all about. How hard could it really be for these pros?
And now it looked as though I was going to have to do it in the pouring rain, if indeed I could summons the desire having driven for five hours and with the lure of the pub just around the corner, literally, from the youth hostel I had booked to stay in, and the knowledge that the Liverpool match was on.
By the time I arrived that match was already half an hour old, Liverpool were one down and killing any inspiration to rush into a pub to watch them, and then I found out I had arrived much to early to check into the hostel. With the rain beginning to fall and time to kill, I decided to kit up in the back of the van and head on out to sample this course.
The circuit in Montréal is a 12.1km lap climbing 229 metres. No walk in the park by any standards and given the pros would be doing it 17 times for 205.7km and a total elevation climbed of 3,893 metres, it equated to that of an alpine stage at the Tour de France. Of course, I wouldn’t be doing 17 laps of it today and as the rain only fell harder and the wind blew colder as I rode towards the circuit my minds plan of three laps quickly became one quick one and back to the car and hopefully a hot shower at the hostel.
I joined the circuit about halfway around its official lap. I had hoped that perhaps the circuit would have been closed for the weekend but no such luck and so I was faced with far too many traffic lights to get a proper feel for the lap. Still, on my way to the start-finish I hit my first, and officially the second climb of the lap, the Côte de la Polytechnique, a short but sharp 800m rise at 6% that by the 17th time would surely be numbing the legs.
It was this climb that Peter Sagan launched his attack on the final lap last year, countering a move made by Canadian Ryder Hesjedal. I was standing down by the start-finish area then and watching on a big-screen and the crowd had gone wild for Hesjedal’s attack only to cheer again when the home town favorite was buried by Sagan. Such is the nature of the cycling fan, their desire to see Hesjedal win was over ridden by the appreciation of Sagan’s talent, his daring, and his solo ride to the win.
Sagan wasn’t here this year and nor was Hesjedal, but I was back and here I was on that hill that ultimately decided the race last year. Two fellow recreational cyclists were just ahead of me and riding at a similarly slow pace. The voice of Phil Liggett burst into my head: “He’s fighting hard to keep the wheel of the two in front, Paul.” Indeed I felt like I could have pushed deep and gone past them but I didn’t want to reach the top only to sit down, try to bring the heart-rate back to a safe range and have them blast right past me again in conversation with one another, so I stayed put. Besides, at the next traffic light they squeezed through as it was changing to red and I stopped.
The start-finish straight on the Avenue du Parc was closed off to cars but a lot of prep work was going on to get it ready for tomorrow. Still, I tootled down anyway, ignored by those working when I half expected to be told to get off the circuit, under the red kite, down to the hairpin and back up the 560 metre, 4% drag to the line. At which shortly thereafter came the meat and bones of this course: Mount Royal’s, Côte Camilien-Houde.
In the grand scheme of cycling this isn’t much of a hill: 1.6km at 8%. A drag to be sure, but far from the hardest thing those racing it will have experienced this season. But when you do tackle it 17 times that turns into a 27.2km climb at 8% and that can do strange things to the legs.
For me it was about laying down some kind of marker on Strava to remind me of my mortality against these incredible athletes and so I swung onto the climb, sufficiently warmed up, and decided to go as hard as I could. And, of course, I had gone through the entire checklist of good preparation even for one push up this climb: Sleep deprivation, check; technical issue with gearing, check; Five hour drive pre-ride, check; lashing rain, check. The technical issue with gearing was the worst possible one, the inability to get into the lowest gear. The rear derailleur appeared out of whack and would bump against the spokes when I tried to find relief in that cog; an issue from which I carried nothing to fix it at that moment.
The heart rate soared, the good work of having been off the bike for a couple of weeks before kicked in and soon I was grinding. From behind: “Allez. Keep going,” two pros out doing a recon of the course, spinning past me as though on a flat road with the wind at their backs. I was hunched over the handlebars and unable to fulfill the earlier held belief that since they were taking it easy I might be able to suffer along on their wheel. I was able to blurt out my amazement that they’d be tackling this thing 17 times. The one on the right in the Orica GreenEdge kit laughed but it was a laugh that sounded as much like a man coming to the realisation of what I had just reminded him of. Or at least I like to think so.
For the rest of the way up groups of those set to race the next day would spin past me, chatting to one another, putting out a high cadence as my legs struggled to turn. “He’s turning squares here Phil, really suffering as the Garmin team ride away from him,” mused the imaginary Paul Sherwen.
Then I noticed the Garmin on my handlebars wasn’t recording. I typically set the auto-pause to about 10km/h to account for unwanted slowdowns on my rides, like traffic lights, but on this climb I had gone below this threshold; an unwanted slowdown to be sure, but one that was my own legs doing. I hesitated between riding on and stopping to adjust it so I could register a time, and then I stopped to adjust it. But it was too late, the time it hadn’t been counting meant I wouldn’t go onto the standings for this infamous Montréal hill.
In the time I was stopped my heart-rate came down and I felt composed again and set off after another pair of professionals gently riding their way up. Ten metres later I was quickly losing ground once more. Up over the top and with the rain beating down I had no desire to go around again only to try set another time on this hill. I was best served waiting until next year and accepting my place on the side of the road watching. On the way down the hill the pro in front followed the road to the right while I swung left back in towards the city, the waiting hostel and a warm pub.
By 11pm that evening, showered, changed, fed and sipping on a beer I wondered how many of those supreme athletes that burned past me on the hill were still awake now? Tucked up in their warm cribs they would be, dreaming about 17 turns on that hill the next day.
And so there I was the next day on various points of that very climb, watching them grind their way up. The first couple of times up I could hear relaxed conversation in the peloton, content to let the days forlorn hope of four escapees from the first lap, Arnold Jeannesson (FDJ), Louis Vervaeke (Lotto), Jan Polanc (Lampre) and Ryan Roth (Canada), go up the road. I was again stunned at the ability of this peloton to tackle what I struggled on so easily, chatting to one another about anything from the meal the night before to the girl standing just beyond the 500m to the summit sign. Three laps down, fourteen to go.
The next thirteen laps were relatively uneventful. The break pushed out to near twelve minutes at one point and when you watch on television you don’t quite fathom how much of a lead twelve minutes actually is, whereas when you’re standing still at the side of the road and you watch the front group roll past, twelve full minutes can seem a long time, especially on what is only a twenty minute lap. Stay asleep anymore and the four in the break could lap the field. Now wouldn’t that be a pickle! Still there was so long to go and all logic suggested that like almost always they would eventually be caught.
Roth was the first to lose contact with three laps to go, then Jeannesson and finally Vervaeke leaving just Polanc solo with one lap left. By now his lead had shrunk to little more than a minute at the bell and when he hit Camilien-Houde it was he, like me twenty-four hours before, that was turning the squares. Suffering he looked over his shoulder and seen his fate baring down on him. A shrunken peloton, but a large one at that would take on the final half of this climb and the rest of the lap for the win. With Polanc swept away, his Lampre teammate and my pre-race pick to win, Rui Costa attacked. He was chased down but over the top a select group had emerged. That group grew in size down the other side and despite further attempts by others to attack on the Polytechnique, it remained quite large for the charge down towards the finishing straight.
Simon Gerrans, winning at the Quebec City race on Friday, had briefly lost touch on the Polytechnique but two Orica GreenEdge teammates helped bridge him into the lead group and while Costa tried once more to attack, he was brought back as they headed down and under the 1km to go kite, directly across the road from the finishing line.
By now I was tucked up in a Grand Stand 30 metres from the line. A perfect view of them sweeping down the road on one side before emerging up over the rise on the other, through what was in other laps the feed station, and into the sprint for the line.
And all this was free. Yet another magical thing about this sport. Five and a half hours of watching the worlds best within touching distance on the climbs and then on the finishing straight from a grand stand, for zero cost. I can think of few other elite level sports that allow you that kind of access for no charge. Even pre and post race the riders will mingle among the fans; the kind of fan-athlete interaction you find nowhere else and which I hope cycling never loses.
By now it was Gerrans’s race to lose; he had three team-mates to lead him out and he was the fastest man left in the group. So no shock to look down into the distance and see him break over the right shoulder of his final leadout man, open a gap of nearly ten bike length and sit up with his arms in the air, right in front of me, with thirty metres still to go, and celebrate the Quebec double; the first man to achieve it. A superb weekend for the Australian.
From Gerrans in first, the World Champion Rui Costa in second, the four men from the days early break, and everyone else who started this savage circuit, I had gained for them a whole new level of admiration. 109 of 152 finished the 17 turns up the 1.6km, 8%, Côte Camilien-Houde, the climb I had found a grind to do just once.
Next year I’ll be back again and I’d quite like to make a longer trip of it and take in the Quebec City race on the Friday as well. Whatever I do though, I’ll bring the bike along again and hopefully with better weather and a little more fitness I’ll get a better and longer ride on the course.
1. Gerrans (OGE) in 5h24’27”
2. Rui Costa (LAM) s.t.
3. Gallopin (LTB) s.t.
4. Navardauskas (GRS) s.t.
5. Bardet (ALM) s.t.
6. Dumoulin (GIA) s.t.