Climbers favored in Québec, Montréal ProTour races

John Wilcockson picks favorites for this weekend's two one-day ProTour races in Canada and gives a short history of Canada's place in world cycling history.

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Canada has a history of pre-dating the United States when it comes to attracting the world’s best bike racers to North America. And this Friday’s inaugural UCI ProTour race in Québec is no exception. What’s more, there’s a second race in Montréal on Sunday.

North American road racing was in its infancy in 1971 when the organizers of Québec province’s Tour du St. Laurent first invited Europe’s top professional teams to contest a five-day stage race they grandly named Le Tour de la Nouvelle France. It was held only twice, each of the races won by star Belgian sprinter Guido Reybroeck; it preceded by 12 years the first equivalent event in the U.S., the three-stage Tour of America in Virginia, which was held just once.

In 1988, the first UCI World Cups were held in North America. Held in early June, it was called the Grand Prix des Amériques, which was held on the Mont-Royal circuit in Montréal, previously used for the 1974 world championships (where Eddy Merckx won ahead of Raymond Poulidor) and the 1976 Olympics (when George Mount became the first American to finish top 10). A few weeks later the first World Cup in the U.S. was held, as the Philadelphia International Championship, first held as the USPRO Championship in 1985, enjoyed World Cup status that year. Roberto Gaggioli won that one.

Friday, September 10: Grand Prix de Québec (189km)

Fifteen laps of a 12.6km counterclockwise circuit that starts and finishes outside the Québec parliament buildings; snakes through the Battlefields Park; descends to a long. flat stretch along the St. Lawrence River; and winds through Old Town Quebec via two steep hills, the Côte de la Montagne and the Côte de la Potasse before the uphill finish — which passes through an archway under the ramparts in the final kilometer.

Sunday, September 12: Grand Prix de Montréal (193.6km)

Sixteen laps of a 12.1km clockwise circuit that opens with a 2km climb up Mont-Royal; descends through the park before hitting a second hill, the Côte de la Polytechnique; and then loops around to a U-turn for a 400-meter uphill to the line.

That Montréal World Cup race lasted for five years — the winners were Canada’s Steve Bauer (1988), Switzerland’s Jörg Müller (1989), Italy’s Franco Ballerini (1990), Belgium’s Eric Van Lancker (1991) and Spain’s Federico Echave (1992). It was an expensive proposition to fly more than a hundred or so riders from Europe for one race, especially at a time when the smaller pro teams had a hard time putting together two or three squads at the same time … and the race was discontinued.

So this Friday’s Grand Prix de Québec is not only the first UCI ProTour race to be held on this side of the Atlantic, but also the first equivalent race since that last Montréal event 18 years ago. All 18 ProTour teams are fielding strong rosters here, despite a date clash with the Vuelta a España and Tour of Britain. The ProTour squads are joined by three Pro Continental squads and a Canadian national team (that’s being directed by 1988 Montréal winner Bauer).

A total of 173 riders has been confirmed as starters on Friday, with perhaps two dozen of them having a realistic chance of victory. Being a hilly circuit race, it is more akin to the world championships than a European point-to-point classic, so men who excel in the grand tours have a greater chance of success (see below for course details).

Among that group of stage race riders are the Team RadioShack trio of Jani Brajkovic, Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer; Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Transitions; Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi; Robert Gesink of Rabobank; Ivan Basso of Liquigas-Doimo; Damiano Cunego of Lampre-Farnese; Michael Rogers of HTC-Columbia; and Linus Gerdemann of Milram.

(Related: Preliminary start list)

All those will be up against riders who specialize in the one-day classics and shoot for stage wins in grand tours. These include Martijn Maaskant of Garmin; Joost Posthuma of Rabobank; Peter Sagan of Liquigas; Sylvain Chavanel and Jérôme Pineau of Quick Step; Edvald Boasson Hagen of Team Sky; Sandy Casar of FDJ; Jens Voigt and Matti Breschel of Saxo Bank; Francesco Gavazzi of Lampre; Maxime Monfort of HTC; Ivan Gutierrez of Caisse d’Épargne; Fabian Wegmann of Milram; Ermanno Capelli of Footon-Servetto; Thomas Voeckler of BBox; and Alessandro Ballan, George Hincapie and Karsten Kroon of BMC Racing.

Given the tough circuits, with a total of 9,153 feet (2,790 meters) of climbing on Friday and 12.021 feet (3,664 meters) on Sunday, the winner will have to be a good climber, and likely a strong finisher (both courses have uphill finishes). At this time of the season, midway between the post-Tour stage races and the world championships, not many riders are motivated for events as tough as these, so expect those who envision doing well at the worlds in Australia next month to be in the breakaways.

The home riders will be motivated the most, so expect a strong performance from Hesjedal (who did so well at the Tour and the spring classics) along with Bauer’s four Team SpiderTech riders Guillaume Boivin, Bruno Langlois, Kevin Lacomber and François Parisien.

But the smart money is on Boasson Hagen (whose Canadian teammate Michael Barry cannot start because of injury); the Norwegian missed a good part of the spring season, and has the motivation to give the sagging Sky a much-needed boost. He even elected not to defend his Tour of Britain title to come to Canada.

But more than just tough races ,this weekend’s program is hopefully the start of a permanent presence of North America on the world stage … with Canada again leading the way.

Editor’s note: Article corrected to show that the Philadelphia International Championships was part of the UCI World Cup in 1988.

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