Tag Archives: Curbside report

Van Avermaet’s revenge in Montreal

It was a 986km round trip to watch 205km of bike racing, but it was worth every metre, as always. This was my fourth year going to the GP Cycliste de Montreal. It has become a bit of a annual tradition (one that I hope to soon include the Quebec race into!) and call me biased, but this race must be one of the finest one-day races on the calendar outside of the five monuments.

It’s just a shame in many ways that it clashes with the final day of the Vuelta, as well as the Tour of Britain. It should be a stand alone event to further boost its prestige and give it more viability to those who maybe haven’t see it, as the great race it is. Not that the field has suffered as a result of the other races, such is the depth of the talent in world cycling. We had the World champion in Peter Sagan and the Olympic champion in Greg Van Avermaet present. And it was that pair who illuminated the racing in Quebec and here.

If Friday was all about Sagan out sprinting Van Avermaet, then Sunday was the Belgians revenge. Both leave Canada deadlocked with a win and second place each and the fans leave entertained.

It was an absolute privilege to watch the finest athletes in the world do their stuff. The crowds were as big as any previous year I had been up there, and why not? A day of action and for free. It was a wonder the entire city hadn’t come up to take a look. In few other sports can you get that close to the athletes. Action that lasted five hours over 17 laps of a 12.1km circuit that included two tough climbs. The total climbing of the 205.7km race was a brutal 3893m.

And it’s the climb of Camillien-Houde at 1.8km and 8% average gradient was were most spend their day. It comes right at the beginning of the lap and tops out 10km from the finish of the lap. so It can prove decisive in late selections but not the race winning move. That is often saved for the shorter 780m, 6% climb of the Cote de Polytechnique that summits 5.6km out. Or for the final kick out of the hairpin up to the finish line on a drag that lasts for 560m but at a tough 4% grade. It’s those climbs repeated, especially the Camillien-Houde, that provide the gradual weeding out process. The slow exhausting of the legs as they climb it 17 times.

You get a good idea of the kind of race it is when you look at the list of past winners. Since I started going in 2013, Sagan, Simon Gerrans, Tim Wellens and today, Van Avermaet. Yes, it’s a proper one-day classic.

And there’s no better way to watch a bike race than this kind of circuit. It’s long enough for the course to have plenty to it but with laps taking about 20 minutes or so, there’s plenty to see. I’m not sure I’d drive that far to watch it if it were a point-to-point race and I would only see them come past the once. With this kind of a course you can see the race develop as it ebbs and flows and takes shape. I like to pick out a rider or two, especially one who might feature come the end, and follow their progress each lap. It’s interesting to see how they read the race, how they position themselves and build towards the crucial moments.

It’s not easy to do when there are so many riders in a pack in team jerseys. I often think that for these kind of races the team leaders should wear different jerseys. The winner of a grand tour should wear that race winning jersey throughout the season, much like the world champion does. Speaking of whom, the one jersey you can pick out with ease is the rainbow stripes and this year it was on the back of the brilliant Peter Sagan.

He had won on Friday and was an obvious favourite for Montreal, so it was fascinating to watch him each lap to see how he went about it. Sagan spent a lot of time in the final third of the pack. I remember a few years ago when he won he would enter the main climb near the front and drift to the back thus saving energy on others. I seen no evidence of this time, though granted I spent a lot of my day up near the top of the hill. At one stage on the descent Sagan came past behind one of the team-cars near the back of the cavalcade. I’m not sure if he had a mechanical issue, but it was still a long way out and by the next race he was back in the field.

When Geraint Thomas forced the pace on the climb with about four laps to go, his move that split the field. The surge also reeled in the final four men of what had been six-man day-long break that included two Canadian riders. Sagan missed the move, but he didn’t panic and remained further back in the bunch while his team worked on the chase. There’s a coolness about the way Sagan races. Almost an understanding that the race will come to him. Had the Thomas move gotten away, you feel the laid-back Sagan might have shrugged his shoulders and said, well there’s always the next race. The was no panic and a lap later he was back in the mix.

Only with the crucial moves made in the final two laps did Sagan turn up. I’d like to have picked out Van Avermaet too, but wearing the BMC jersey like his team-mates it wasn’t always easy. Before I’d have through it too hilly for Van Avermaet, but his climbing has improved, highlighted by his Olympic win on a hilly circuit in Rio.

Late on Rui Costa attacked hard, on the final run up Camillien-Houde. He held a lead going into the final kilometre but it was a small group that got clear on the Cote de Polytechnique that brought him back. The group contained Sagan and Van Avermaet.

By then I was sitting up in a grandstand just 30m from the finish line. As I watched the chase blitz past on the opposite side of the road and under the red kite, I turned to the big screen to see what would come back up the road. Costa got swept up as they swung out of the final hairpin and made the drive for the line. It seemed made for Sagan. Having watched him all day I was desperate to see him pull it off, but it also had become clear that he had led the chase a little too much. He once again tried to close down a late move in the final straight and this allowed Van Avermaet to get onto his wheel. Into a heavy wind Sagan was in trouble and the Olympic champion cane around the world champion late to take the win.

So both took a turn beating the other and I was just glad to have been there for the Montreal race to see it come together. Safe to assume I’ll be back again next year, and I hope those two are also.

Result:

1. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) in 5h27’04”

2. Peter Sagan (Tinkoff)

3. Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida)

4. Michael Matthews (Orica-BikeExchange)

5. Nathan Haas (Dimension Data)

6. Gianni Moscon (Sky) all s.t.

Top Canadian finisher: Ryder Hesjedal, 19th (Trek-Segafredo)

King of the Mountains: Ben Perry (Canada)

Quintana wraps up the Vuelta

Saturday’s stage was a giant with potential for mayhem. It contained several hills leading into a final 22km climb with a summit finish. As it turns out Quintana responded to everything Froome threw at him and rode into Madrid yesterday as the worthy winner of this race. The only major shakeup was the bad day for Alberto Contador and a great ride by Esteban Chaves that allowed the Colombian to join his national compatriot Quintana on the podium.

Could Froome have won this Vuelta had he not been part of the Olympics after his Tour win? I think so. People will say Quintana won this Vuelta last week when himself and Contador forced the split that caught Froome out. Which regards to the race itself is true. But I also think it was when Froome attended the Olympics. That isn’t to say this was a mistake – he did win a silver medal after all – but there’s no doubt he showed up in less than top form. Froome was not himself in the early going. It also perhaps limited his ability to shake Quintana from his wheel in the later stages.

Froome has said next year he will target both the Tour and the Vuelta with his Team Sky boss Dave Brailsford saying he believes the double is possible. From what I’ve seen I tend to agree, but Quintana will also believe it possible himself with the confidence gained from this victory.

Final classification:

1. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) in 83h31’28”

2. Chris Froome (Sky) @ 1’23”

3. Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange) @ 4’08”

4. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) @ 4’21”

5. Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac) @ 7’43”

6. Simon Yates (Orica-BikeExchange) @ 8’33”

Tour of Britain musings

What with the Vuelta being on and then me being up in Montreal, I seen none of the Tour of Britain. That said, everything I’ve read and heard, it sounds like some brilliant racing. Steve Cummings of Dimension Data took the GC win by 26sec over Rohan Dennis and 38sec ahead of Tom Dumoulin. Both are time-trial specialists, but who could not overhaul the defecit to the Englishman after his time gains on a brilliant stage two ride. It wasn’t until stage six when Cummings finally took the race lead and from there he held it into London.

Rider of the week

I couldn’t split Sagan and Van Avermaet given both took a win and a second place in Canada. I couldn’t quite go for Froome despite his time-trial win and gritty effort to pull back his loses on Quintana. And I didn’t go for Quintana because he won the week before in what was his best week of the Vuelta. As a result it’s Steve Cummings and his brilliant Tour of Britain win.

Wellens rises to the top though downpour at yet another supeb race in Montréal

The rain came early and it came often but for those who braved it–and there was more than you’d imagine–they were treated to one of the best races of the year on one of the toughest courses of the year in what some riders described afterwards as the hardest race they had ever been in.

In the end, Tim Wellens won but not before half the field, or so it seemed, had a crack at getting into the break and it wasn’t until about 80km left of the 205.7km race that one finally established and lasted beyond a couple of laps of the 12.1km circuit in Montréal. The move contained Thomas Voeckler, Louis Vervaeke (who was in the day-long break last year) and Manuel Quinziato and was launched moments after Michal Kwiatkowski had been pulled back by a large group that contained the likes of Romain Bardet, Warren Barguil and Jakob Fuglsang among several others and that had survived for a handful of laps building a lead of more than one minute at one stage. That group however, like the half a dozen moves before it, was eventually swallowed up by a peloton in panic at the kind of names trying to get away and the brief lull allowed the Voeckler group to establish itself.

The rain eased after the first five or six laps, even allowing the sun to crack through briefly, but the racing rarely abated and the quick start and constant attacks over those early laps soon seen the field splitting up with a large group distanced from the main bunch on that testing 1.8km climb at an average gradient of 8%. It may not seem like much, but when you tackle it 17 times as they did in this race, it quickly becomes a true weeding out process as tiring legs begin to struggle to stay with the pace each time up.

The weather no doubt played its part in the number of abandonment’s and by the time the skies opened and the thunder rolled with three laps to go for the heaviest downpour of the lot, the field was down to just 64 of the 167 starters (minus Sky’s Bernard Eisel who broke his arm at the Quebec race two days before). And with just a lap to go the break that now also continued Andriy Grivko, having bridged across when he left behind Chris Juul Jensen–himself active in a handful of moves in the early going–was finally reeled in as counter attacks on the last run up the climb gave us our final selection for victory.

The race was wide open to a dozen high profile names but from the move emerged Wellens and Adam Yates and they maintained it to the finish. Not that those of us waiting at the finish knew. The storm that was passing over had cut the local feed to the big screens and word of mouth via those with access to Twitter kept those around them informed of what moves were being made. By the time they splashed under the 1km kite, revealing themselves to those waiting directly opposite at the start/finish line, on their way down to the hair-pin bend for the final time, it was Yates on the wheel of Wellens with a select group of about 12 a handful of seconds behind and what was left of the main field a few seconds behind that. Out of the turn and up through the feed zone Yates ended the game of cat and mouse that threatened their catch when he made the first move, but Wellens countered and took the sprint with relative ease. Rui Costa, previous winner here and perennial podium man who came second last year, came home third this time as the rain tailed off.

Wilco Kelderman, Bardet, Robert Gesink, Philippe Gilbert and Kwiatkowski, who had all tried to force the issue on the final run up the Mount Royale, finished within a handful of seconds of Wellens and in doing so highlighted their intentions and form for the upcoming World Championships. The elite men’s road-race championship takes place two weeks after this race and it remains one of the ideal preparation races for it.

The team of the day was no doubt Lotto Soudal and not just because of Wellens’s victory. They were also the only team in which all eight men finished the race, especially impressive given the course and the conditions, and their young star, Louis Vervaeke, aged just 21, was rewarded for his long stint in the break by winning the climbing prize.

This Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal never fails to deliver and on the three occasions I have went up to it over the last three years, I’ve only ever seen good racing. What makes it so brilliant is the fact it is on a circuit. To those watching on TV, that isn’t always the greatest way to watch a race when you prefer to see them cover great lateral distances through towns and countrysides, but for the fans that turn out to watch, it’s probably the best form of racing.

17 laps of a 12.1km course taking the winner over 5 hours means that you see action all day. You don’t stand around waiting for the race to flash past and then head home again, but rather wait less than 20 minutes for it to come through each time while moving around various points on the course to experience different aspects of the race. And it’s not too short either to have that feel of a crit, but long enough for plenty to take place within a lap with plenty to challenge a rider on a single lap. Frequently on Sunday we seen breaks go more than half a minute clear, but be caught and a new move launched all within the space of a single lap.

While you don’t see what all goes on around the back of the course, it passes you by enough for you to get an idea of what is going on and get the sense that you are watching the entire race develop before you, long before the TV pictures would go live around the world. And this year highlighted that better than ever with attacking all day long in a race that had dozens of pontential contenders.

Post race, Julian Alaphilippe described it on Twitter as “one of the most difficult races of the season”, while Lotto Soudal’s Greg Henderson celebrated his teams fine performance but called it the “hardest bike race ever”, on his Twitter feed.

And yet despite its difficulty, along with the Friday race up in Quebec City, the riders who come across to be a part of it, find it one of the best of the year. The hotel accommodation is as good as they get during the season, and the circuits are unique and challenging. As a one-day race with a World Tour rating, it attracts a strong field of classic type riders and remains arguably the best preparation race for the World Championships. It’s just a shame it overlaps with the final weekend of the Vuelta.

I know I’ll be back next year, though I hope the rain isn’t, and I still retain ambitions of one day taking in the Quebec City race as well on a long-weekend road trip.

Result:

1. Tim Wellens

2. Adam Yates

3. Rui Costa

4. Jan Bakelants

5. Tiesj Benoot

6. Wilco Kelderman

7. Romain Bardet

8. Robert Gesink

9. Philippe Gilbert

10. Tom Jelte Slagter

Others:
12. Michal Kwiatkowski
23. Michael Woods
35. Chris Juul Jensen
47. Thomas Voeckler
52. Louis Vervaeke

(TLS)

(OGE)

(LAM)

(ALM)

(TLS)

(TLJ)

(ALM)

(TLJ)

(BMC)

(TCG)

(EQS)
(CAN)
(TSC)
(EUC)
(TLS)

in 5h 20′ 9″

s.t.

@ 2″

@ 4″

s.t.

@ 5″

s.t.

@ 9″

all s.t.

@ 9″
@ 15″
@ 1′ 18″
@ 4′ 59″
@ 6′ 41″

Watching the best in Montreal

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.

Result:
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.

Circuit racing is as good as it gets, especially in Montréal

There’s no better way to watch a bike race than when they’re going round and round. Forget these point-to-point races that are the tradition of bike racing — those are well and good to watch on the television — but when you’re on the side of the road, getting to see the riders time and again, especially on a course with a good climb, is hard to beat. It’s why the World Tour race in Montréal this month is one of the best races to go watch at the elite end of the pro calendar.

It’s this kind of circuit racing that reminds you why Kermesse racing is so popular in Belgium. People can stand at the side of the road and be entertained by a race for hour after hour. They’ll watch the race speed by then duck into the cafe’s or pub’s for a drink before stepping back out to the edge of the curb to see them go past again. You don’t have to stand at the side of the road for three or four hours spending more time collecting cheap goods thrown from a publicity caravan than you do watching the actual race go past is the case in point-to-points. They wiz past in a matter of seconds and as if someone’s stolen something from you, you’re left wondering what to do next.

The Tour de France might be a rare exception to this if you happen to be up on one of the mountains. The atmosphere there alone would create a memorable experience not to mention the riders passing at a slower speed, with the look of suffering on their faces in small groups spread out across the mountain. But let’s face it, the Monument spring classics, and the majority of Tour stages that start in one location and finish in another make for brilliant TV, but are not the most spectacular spectator sports.

Last weekend I went up to Montréal to catch the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal on the Sunday. I’d never been before despite this being the fourth year of its existence and my fifth year in Canada, but I’d seen it on TV and I knew it was a circuit race with a good climb in the middle. I knew I wouldn’t be spending four and a half hours on the train going up to Montréal to see them go past in the time it would take me to snap two or three pictures before heading back to the station again. They would race Friday in Quebec City and Sunday in Montréal and everyone standing at the side of the road would be in for a great day’s action.

The last time I seen a professional bike race of this kind of standard was the 1998 Tour de France in Dublin. We watched the Prologue (another form or racing that’s good to watch when you see each rider come past one at a time, though you do miss out on the image of a tightly packed bunch streaming past), and a road stage the following day. Winners: Chris Boardman and Tom Steels. Before that it was way back in 1991 on the North-West corner of France for two more Tour stages. An individual time-trial won by Miguel Indurain on his way to his first Tour victory, and a road stage won by Mauro Ribeiro — the first and, to date, only Brazilian to win a stage of Le Tour.

So it’s safe to say this was a long time coming and that I was more than a little bit excited. The Grands Prix Cyclistes de Québec et de Montréal are two single day races that are part of cycling’s World Tour. They are on a level footing with regards to ranking points with such races as the Clásica de San Sebastián, La Flèche Wallonne, the Amstel Gold Race, and Gent-Wevelgem. The winner can be sure of 80 points, just 20 points less than he would get for winning one of the five Monuments, and 60 points more than an individual stage win at the Tour de France, so it’s safe to say there would be a strong field of riders.

And thanks as well to a World Championships course this year that packs in some tough little climbs, there was a lot of riders riding in Montréal as part of their preparations. This very course in Montréal hosted the World Championships in 1974 when Eddy Merckx won what is regarded as one of the toughest World Championships of all time. As such names like current and former Tour de France winners, Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans were on hand, as well as the likes of Peter Sagan, Sylvain Chavanel and hometown hero, Ryder Hesjedal.

Just so you get an idea, the course in Montréal is a 12.1 kilometre loop over Mount Royal that consists of three hills: The first is the 1.8 km Camillien-Houde up over the mountain at an average gradient of 8%, the next is the Polytechnique which is 6% over 750m, and the final is the rise to the line from the final hairpin bend that is 560 metres in length at 4% gradient. They circuit this course 17 times for a total of XXX.X km. The total elevation gain is in the region of about 14,000 feet. This is one hard test.

I arrived on the Saturday to the welcome sight of various riders decked out in their team kits riding around the streets of Montréal, keeping their legs loose after a tough race the day before and ahead of tomorrow’s event. Friday’s race in Quebec City was won by Robert Geskink ahead of Arthur Vichot after Peter Sagan had mistimed his late effort and been well beaten. Reports suggested the young Slovak phenom was out for revenge in Montréal. The rest of Saturday was spent relaxing on a nice patio in beautiful Old Montréal and later in the pub.

On Sunday I made sure to get up into the thick of things near the start-finish area early. Grab a few pictures and spend some money on some merchandise … in this case, a sweater. I’ve been to Montréal for two sporting events now. This, and on two previous occasions the Formula One Montreal Grand Prix. Both are very different, and one of the most glaring differences is the fact that at one you must pay for site access, whereas the other is free. At the F1 you’re well back from the edge of the track whereas in cycling you can stand so close you could touch the rider going by so long as it wasn’t a section with barriers. In F1 there is no hope of you going down to the track during a practice session to take your car for a spin around alongside a Lewis Hamilton or Fernando Alonso, but in Montreal this weekend hoards of local club riders could take to the closed circuit for a lap alongside the professional teams. At the F1 you can’t just head down to the start/finish area fifteen minutes before the race begins, cross the track and almost bump into one of the drivers working his way past the merchandise stall and towards his pit. This is what happened to me on the Sunday.

But don’t think this is some critique of F1. Almost every sport I follow is like this with an ever dwindling access for fans towards the athletes. This is to show how cycling is one of them rare sports left where the fan still feels a part of it. The athletes aren’t hidden away and the fans aren’t bled dry of their cash with all the action at the other side of a barrier or fence. (That is except for a few rare sections that require barriers … though they’re still free).

Once the race began I headed up onto the Camillien-Houde climb where I would spend the rest of the day at various spots watching the race go past. Thousands gathered on the hill but it was never too busy that you couldn’t stand at the edge of the road, unobstructed, and take a few pictures and watch the race go through. People would converge on the road as the leading motorbikes went through before being forced backwards by a broad peloton of riders looking to squeeze past. The cyclists on the edges of the peloton would ride towards the crowds forcing the road to open better in front of them. Thankfully nobody was looking the other way and failed to move.

Round and round they went, kilometre after kilometre. A small group of seven (Zach Bell (Canadian National team), Sergio Paulinho (Saxi-Tinkoff), Danilo Hondo (RadioShack Leopard), Ruben Perez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Valerio Agnoli (Astana), Adriano Malori (Lampre-Merida) and William Clarke (Argos-Shimano)) attacked on the first lap and lasted until the final five or so laps before being swept up. Then with three laps to go the racing really heated up. By then I was back to the lower slopes of the hill ready to watch them attack the climb once more. My phone had died somewhere around lap 10 and so no longer had access to sources such as Twitter to know exactly what was going on. I had an idea as the race kept a consistent shape, but as the race moved into the final laps I knew it was time to get down to the finish.

Clearly others had a similar idea and by the time I seen them swing down onto Avenue du Parc for their run down the hill to the hairpin bend and past me once more and up onto the climb for the final lap, I made my way to the finish to see thousands gathered around the two big screens. Getting a spot at the barrier proved hopeless and so I nestled in about three deep from the barrier at the 50 metres to go sign with a good view of the screen. It was there I seen Sagan and Froome put in their attacks and then to a huge roar from the masses, we seen Hesjedal attack on the Polytechnique. It was this climb that Sagan then blew past the Canadian and into the lead of the race for the final time. With about five kilometres to go, the Slovak was in time-trial mode and the rest were beaten.

Sagan was a popular rider among the fans. I’d seen one kid write his name on the hill earlier in the day, but for the most part he’d remained quiet in the bunch. Often as the group came past me on the climb he was near the back, though always in front of Hesjedal who seemed to make a habit of sitting almost at the very rear of the peloton. Sagan was playing it smart though. He would go into the climb near the front, and then ride it slower than the rest, going over the top of the hill near the rear of the pack. It saved him little bits of energy for times like now, in these final five clicks when he would need it most.

My vantage point at 50 metres from the line was also just across from the Red Kite, 1 kilometre to go banner, and the crowd went wild as the Cannondale rider sped under it for what now looked like a sure win. This despite the fact it was Hesjedal still in hot pursuit. Cycling fans, for the most part, aren’t tribal like other sport fans. Sure they have their favorites and they dislike some, but rarely will you hear them boo or jeer a rider because he’s beating the one they like. Cycling fans understand the ability of these men; they understand how difficult the sport is, and so the cheers for Sagan were almost as loud as those for Hesjedal. The Canadian settled for third in a two man sprint behind Simone Ponzi.

I hung around long enough to see the podium celebrations and grab a souvenir hat to go with my sweater before going back to my friends house to grab my belongings and get to the train station for the long ride back into Ontario for a late night to bed and early start the next morning back at work.

It was well worth it though. Great to see this level of racing up close again and I knew just as soon as I was heading home that I’d be heading back again next year. Maybe I’ll even squeeze in a trip to the race in Quebec City also.

Result

1. Peter Sagan (Cannondale) in 5h20’07”

2. Simone Ponzi (Astana) + 4″

3. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) s.t.

4. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) + 7″

5. Flippo Pozzato (Lampre) s.t.

6. Rui Costa (Movistar) s.t.