Words & Photos by Brett Stav –
Where can you go and see a French bike race that isn’t in France? Just like every other U.S. cycling fan, I’ve always dreamed of going to France and seeing the best cyclists in the world up close race in the Grand Boucle.
But let’s be honest – the Tour de France is a daunting challenge even to the most rabid spectators. There’s planning the trip, the hotels, the transportation, getting the time off work, the long flight, the cost… and then there’s the language barrier.
The Hotel Chateau Frontenac makes an impressive backdrop for the race.
Having barely passed French class in high school, the very thought of dragging my family across France’s remote mountain passes to see racers whiz by for a few seconds at a time, armed with only “Hello. Where is the bathroom?” in my halting Gallic syntax, has always prevented me from crossing the Holy Grail of Cycling off my bucket list.
Julie, my helpful media guide. Like most French-Canadians, bilingual and friendly.
Luckily for me, Canadian Serge Arsenault and our friendly neighbors to the north have an answer to my prayers. Arsenault has been organizing world-class bike races in the province of Quebec for more than 20 years, and his latest incarnations, the Grand Prixs de Quebec and Montreal offer North American cycling fans a unique opportunity to see their heroes up close.
Quebec City basks in the late summer sunshine.
As a History major, I’ve always wanted to visit Quebec. Being an ignorant American, and especially living on the west coast, Quebec has always seemed like an anomaly and a paradox. Part of Canada, yet fiercely independent. Stereotypically polite by nature, rude by reputation. Rich with history, but modern and innovative. French and English speaking. So close, yet so far away.
The racers penetrate Quebec City’s defensive wall.
So when PEZ offered me the chance to report on the race, I put on my best shirt, checked my breathe, grabbed my passport and took my shot with the older, sexy foreign exchange student next door. A 12-hour, two connection flight lands me in Quebec City and my first UCI ProTour race.
Three-time Grand Prix des Nation winner, former maillot jaune and 80s cycling sunglasses icon Charly Mottet is the technical director for the Canadian UCI races – and happily poses with yours truly.
Taking a trip to Old Quebec is like taking a step back in time. Founded by Samuel de Champlain in 1608, it is the only walled city north of Mexico. Its citadel, high city walls and colonial-era architecture act as a mere garnish to the majestic and imposing Chateau Frontenac that overlooks the city and the mighty St. Lawrence River. Cited as the most photographed hotel in the world, a visitor to Old Quebec one might be dumbfounded into thinking they’ve been transported to Old France, or possibly Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom, or at the very least, the back lot of some Harry Potter film.
The chasers climb rue Montagne.
It’s been my experience that the best way to enjoy a bike race is by covering different parts of the race course. Serge Arsenault and his technical director Charly Mottet designed a 12 km circuit that offers an embarrassment of riches for race photographers, as it winds up and down all of Old Quebec’s picturesque streets, circling the striking Chateau Frontenac and all of the city’s other major landmarks 16 times, at a rate 20-minutes a lap, for a total of 200 km. 400-year old church in the background? Check. Historic battlefield in the foreground? Check. Waterfront scene? Arsenault and Mottet can give that to you, too.
1984 Olympic silver medalist and former maillot jaune Steve Bauer now heads up Team SpiderTech.
Race day arrives. Having scouted the city beforehand, I know the hilly, serpentine course is hilly but small enough to cover by best by foot. I arm myself with my trusty old point-and-shoot, spare batteries, sun block, water and a granola bar to get me through the 5-hour race.
1988 Olympic silver medalist Curt Harnett & Argon18 founder Gervais Rioux.
I start the hike up the 1km from my hotel to the Start/Finish line, which mirrors the grind the racers will make each lap. I make it just 500 meters before I break a sweat and my feet start to throb. I struggle to imagine having to ride one’s bike up this section once, let alone 16 times.
Former Amstel Gold Race and Tour de France stage winner Frans Maassen still has it.
You’d have your picture taken, too.
An hour before the race, all the pomp and circumstance of a high-caliber international event begins. Podium girls. Honor guards. Volunteers hand out Thunder Sticks, race programs and Ville de Quebec flags to spectators. Politicians shaking hands. VIPs sipping champagne. Giant Jumbotron TVs. Euro Sport helicopters flapping above raise the tension even further. I recognize former Tour de France stars like Steve Bauer, Herman Frison, Frans Maassen and Charly Mottet walking amongst the crowd, and I’m trying – and failing – to look cool and keep my jaw from hitting the floor.
Young cyclists display Vacansoleil’s bikes as they sign in.
Each team is introduced one-by-one to the crowd. I can’t understand a word the announcer says except “Tour de France” or “Milan San Remo” but the emcee’s exhalations are whipping the fans into an excited frenzy. When Canadian Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal and his Garmin-Sharp teammates are called to the stage, they receive the rock star treatment and the crowd goes nuts.
French star Thomas Voeckler gets a hero’s welcome.
200 years after the War of 1812, Timothy Duggan leads the American invasion.
Double Tour stage winner Thomas Voeckler does a short interview on stage and receives a long, loud ovation. The French-Canadians know their Tour de France stars. Voeckler, Peter Sagan, and Luis Leon Sanchez all receive shouts of encouragement before being whisked off stage. Some of the racers try to break the tension by having a coffee in the VIP area but are swarmed by grown men pleading for autographs and photographs, not unlike starry-eyed Justin Bieber fans. Sagan looks grim, but patiently acquiesces to each request. I don’t think he gets to finish his coffee before being called to the start line.
And they are off. The speed of the caravan is shocking as they hit the gas and head down through the Plains of Abraham. I head over to the park, where, in 1759, the French and English fought a bloody battle that decided the fate of the Seven Year’s War and the possession of Canada.
Local fans shout encouragement to the early escapees.
Today, I find the battlefield littered with hundreds of schoolchildren who have been bus loaded into experience this unique cultural opportunity. Seven and 8-year-olds are dancing, playing and screaming their lungs out for every cyclist as they zoom down the park at high speed toward the river. They keep screaming for each follow car, motorcycle, and ambulance as they roar by, and even the thick dust that is kicked up by the caravan doesn’t deter their joy and enthusiasm.
In Battlefield Park, the attacks begin.
My enthusiasm, however is severely dampened when my digital camera’s batteries suddenly die. No worries, I came prepared and brought spares that were purchased at a souvenir shop. No go. Even though they are AAs, they don’t fit. Cursing my luck, I dash off to a local hotel whose gift shop carries my trusted brand.
Giro winner Ryder Hesjedal’s young fans weren’t disappointed, just dusty.
I get the batteries, but lose a lap of the action. No problem, I still have 4 hours and 14 laps of racing to go. The sun breaks out and the humidity rises, so I take out the water and sunscreen and head downhill toward the Citadel, which was built 200 years ago to protect Canada from an invasion from the fledgling United States. I pass bronze statues of national and international cultural and political heroes like Garneau, Roosevelt, Churchill and Gandhi as they watch an early breakaway form up the long grind up to the start/finish line.
Cheerful volunteers, firefighters, city workers and the local police all help guide me and the other race fans safely down the course along the narrow sidewalks and city streets. I quickly realize most Quebecois’ English is far better than my French, and find it best to respond to their friendly “Bonjours” with “Hellos” to avoid saying “Parlez-vous anglais?” halfway through the conversation.
I continue down to the Chateau Frontenac, taking snapshots along the way. When I arrive, I quickly become overloaded by my choices for viewing locations – they’re all spectacular. Built in 1892, the hotel overlooks the race by 360 degrees. I choose nearby Montmorency Park to cheer the breakaways up the Rue de Montagne, chased closely behind by the Sky and Garmin-led peloton. The hill is shelling handfuls of racers off the back each lap, and as they grind to a near stand-still at the top, some turn directly into the hotel to end their day.
Cars run on motor oil. Canadians run on maple syrup.
A few laps later, I realize I’m running low on gas myself, so I head further down the course to Rue St. Jean, which is lined with souvenir shops and restaurants packed with race fans. I stop by the legendary Tim Horton’s and fuel up with a cruller and coffee, then complete my sugar-high with a maple ice cream cone inside the air-conditioned Canadian Maple Delights store. Maple syrup is a staple of Canadians, like olive oil is to the Italians. You can buy it here in ounces, liters or by the gallon in multiple flavors from just about every establishment with a business license. They even sell maple-flavored massage oil.
Quebecois love frites, especially with cheese and gravy. Don’t call them French fries.
Cooled, refueled and rested, I head back outside to see the racers breeze past at 60 km along the cobbled and flag-lined streets and hike back up to the start/finish line and get there with 20 km to go. A local rider makes a late break with Saxo Bank’s Nicki Sorenson and the crowd shouts ecstatic encouragements at the JumboTron screen. The move doesn’t stick. Groans are followed by sighs as the crowd sees Hesjedal drop off the back of the leaders.
The racers pass through to start the final lap, and the noise level rises and falls with oohs and aahs as Greg Van Avermaet, Sagan and others trade body blows. The lap culminates into a blaring cacophony of sound as Orica-Green Edge’s Simon Gerrans sprints around Van Avermaet to claim victory.
This race may not be the Tour de France, and this city may not be close, but they’re close enough on both accounts for me. Like every other person in the crowd, my voice is hoarse and I’m both exhausted and filled with adrenaline at the same time.
Canadian Michael Barry’s face shows the strain of 5 hours of racing on a brutal course.
The sun burnt and dirty-faced stragglers file in one by one with the Canadian contingent receiving the warmest ovations. As wild cards, these races offer a rare opportunity for home-grown talent to shine on a world stage, and the locals didn’t disappoint. SpiderTech’s Francois Parisien is the top Canadian finisher in 10th. Barry 21st, Roth 23rd, Boivin 25th, Veilleux 28th, Langlois 30th. Hesjedal finishes 94th.
Just as the podium ceremonies conclude and the crowd starts to disperse, Hesjedal appears on his bike, but the crowd spots him and doesn’t get far. He’s mobbed by media, VIPs and a few people from the crowd brave enough to jump over the barriers. They all want a photo, autograph, interview or word of encouragement with the new Canadian cycling hero.
Canadian David Veilleux’s fan club.
He looks exhausted, but smiles and surrenders to each request, trying to politely ease his way back to his hotel for a much-needed shower, massage and rest before taking up the challenge again in Montreal in two days’ time. His face betrays mixed emotions, part disappointment for missing out on the win, part pride for the effort made in front of the home crowd.
Like Ryder, I’m tired, too. My feet are throbbing and I can feel a sunburn on my face and neck. I’m happy with the memories of a lifetime this race and city have given me, but disappointed that I will miss the Montreal race.
As I head back to my hotel, the late-summer sun glistens off the Frontenac’s orange copper roof. A veritable postcard factory, there are probably one million images of its towers on t-shirts, mugs, pens, cups, plates and a plethora of other souvenirs that I can purchase that are a better quality than the ones I took today with my limited skills and puny camera. But I take one last shot, because this photo, like the fond memories of Quebec, is uniquely mine.