QUEBEC CITY (VN) — After a 2010 debut that was unanimously lauded as a resounding success, the top riders in professional cycling have returned to Canada to contest a pair of one-day WorldTour races, the 2011 Québec City and Montréal Grand Prix Cyclistes.
Both events are circuit races using historic Canadian courses, with both events lengthened this year to exceed 200 kilometers (16 laps in Québec City, for a total of 201 km; 17 laps in Montréal, for a total of 205 km).
The GP Cycliste de Québec is run on a demanding 12.6km circuit through Old Québec City, ideal for riders capable of producing punchy accelerations on the old city’s hills, including the Côte de la Montagne, a 300m pitch that maxes out at 13 percent gradient. The course finishes on Grande Allée Street; a variation of the route has been used for years at the Tour de Beauce.
The GP Cycliste de Montréal is a more difficult 12.1km circuit run on the classic Mount Royal circuit, which was used at the 1974 world championships, won by Eddy Merckx, and again at the 1976 Olympic Games. The crux of the course is the one-mile Camilien-Houde climb, averaging 8 percent, which riders will climb 17 times. The Montréal course was also used in the 1980s, at the Grand Prix des Amériques, and as a women’s World Cup event during the last decade.
The Grands Prix Cyclistes Québec–Montréal organization, which was granted the first two UCI licenses for WorldTour races in North America, produces both events. Headed by enigmatic TV commentator Serge Arsenault, the organization is committed to hosting both races through 2014.
At last year’s inaugural events, Thomas Voeckler won in Québec, and Robert Gesink won in Montréal. Both men won alone, soloing away on the hilly circuits ahead of small chase groups. Along with Gesink, who finished third at Québec, Garmin-Cervélo’s Ryder Hesjedal was among the strongest men in both events, finishing third at GP Montréal and fourth at GP Québec.
Other marquee riders racing this weekend include UCI number-two ranked rider Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto), recent USA Pro Cycling Challenge overall winner Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) and USAPCC podium finishers Québec (Garmin-Cervélo) and Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad).
Additional starters include Tour de France stars Pierre Rolland (Europcar), Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel), Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky).
Canadian crowd favorites include Hesjedal, Michael Barry (Sky), David Veilleux (Europcar) and Dominique Rollin (FDJ), as well as the bulk of the SpiderTech-C10 team headed by Svein Tuft, Zach Bell and François Parisien.
A new addition to the 2011 events is the Challenge Sprint Pro, a street-sprint competition held Thursday on Grande-Allée Street in Québec City. In total 24 riders will race in successive heats over a 1km course with a slight uphill finish. The top two finishers from each elimination round will move on to the next sprint, until the final heat, when the top four riders will sprint for the win.
Riders expected to contest for the Challenge Sprint victory include Rollin, Bell, Hayden Roulston (HTC-Highroad), Robbie Hunter (RadioShack), Gerald Ciolek (Quick Step) and Borut Bozic (Vacansoleil). Americans Ted King (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Peter Stetina (Garmin-Cervelo) are also listed as starters for the street sprint competition.
Though he was slated to compete, Leopard-Trek’s Andy Schleck announced last weekend that he would not be able to contest the GPs due to complications from a wisdom tooth. Schleck’s older brother Fränk was not scheduled to race in Canada, instead racing the September 14 Grand Prix de Wallonie before the late-September world road championships in Copenhagen.
Voeckler and Lampre’s Damiano Cunego were also once listed as provisional starters but did not make the trip across the Atlantic.
The favorites discuss the favorites
With the parcours’ hilly profiles and uphill finishes, all eyes are on Gilbert, who swept the hilly one-day Ardennes Classics week in April, and then took the maillot jaune on the opening stage of the Tour de France with an uphill finish at Mont des Alouettes.
After the Tour Gilbert kept up his winning ways at Clasica San Sébastian, also winning a stage of Eneco Tour of Benelux and a national time trial championship. But the Belgian road champion insisted Wednesday that his current fitness is not on the level that has seen him win, seemingly at will, all year long.
“I’m not in the same condition I’ve been in other times of the year,” Gilbert said at a Québec City press conference, held at the historic Fairmont Le Château Frontenac hotel, which serves as the race’s headquarters. “My main goal is to snatch points for the UCI world rankings. But if along the way I’m in a position to win, obviously I’d love to.”
Gilbert is six points behind Cadel Evans on the world rankings. He would have to finish ninth in one of the two Canadian races to tie Evans and eighth to surpass him. Evans is not racing again this season.
Gilbert, who did not race in Canada last year, pointed to Team Sky as the biggest favorite. In 2010 Boasson Hagen won the bunch sprint for second in Québec, and was in the front group on the final lap in Montréal before he crashed on the course’s 180-degree right-hand turn. And Gilbert said Sky’s Simon Gerrans might be best suited for the course’s punchy climbs.
“We checked out the (Côte de la Montagne) climb for the first time this morning,” Gilbert said Wednesday. “I saw it was pretty hard, and since it’s only a 12km circuit, we’ll go back on to the climb regularly. It’s going to hurt on the final laps. How the final plays out will depend on the weather, if it is windy. I heard last year there was a headwind in the final. That is a final that suits me, but I think Gerrans might be better prepared.”
Gerrans, who recently finished second at the GP Ouest France-Plouay after winning the Tour of Denmark, said Gilbert’s pick was “a huge compliment.”
“I have been able to carry some good condition on from the Tour de France and had some solid results in my last two races in Denmark and Plouay,” Gerrans told VeloNews. “I expect the circuit of the GP Québec to be really selective. Sky has a great team here, and with their support I hope to be up there in the final racing for the win.”
In addition to Boasson Hagen, Gerrans and Barry, Sky brings Juan Antonio Flecha, Jeremy Hunt, Roberto Uran and Christian Knees.
Gilbert pointed to the riders who competed in the USA Pro Cycling Challenge as likely podium contenders, citing both their time spent training and racing at altitude as well as a lack of the jetlag so many European-based riders will face. Pre-race favorites Gesink, Leipheimer, van Garderen, Hesjedal and Vande Velde all raced in Colorado in late August.
Gesink said his performances in Canada last September were among “the best period” he’s had in his young career. “I’m motivated to do well again,” the Dutch rider said. “The Colorado racing was a good warm-up for this race. I think I’m in good shape.”
Asked if he expected the races to finish as they did in 2010 — with both races won by solo moves, chased by small groups — Gesink said the harder the pace, the more it suited him.
“Last year Garmin made the race really hard for Ryder Hesjedal, they did a hard tempo and that’s good for me, if it’s a difficult race and everyone has to go to their maximum,” Gesink said. “On a small, steep climb (like the Côte de la Montagne), it’s more or less the same for everyone. But when someone like Voeckler is attacking in the final, it’s a good opportunity to win like that. Montreal is a different race, it’s a really tough parcours. The climb is longer. I expect small differences at the finish line, but if you can get the right moment, I think you can do it in the same way (winning solo).”
One rider who performed well in Canada last year is Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Samuel Sánchez. The Tour de France King of the Mountains finished sixth at Montréal last year, but the Spaniard and five of his teammates went down in a training ride pile-up Wednesday caused by rough road surface. And though Sánchez said Miguel Minguez was the only Euskaltel rider to have significant injuries, the Olympic champion winced as he stepped down from the press conference stage, visibly in pain.
Fresh off a stage win at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, George Hincapie leads the BMC Racing Team in Canada.
“I came out of the Utah and Colorado block of races in really good shape,” Hincapie said. “Hopefully, I can take advantage of that this weekend. Last year, I was coming off an injury, so I was only 70 percent. But I thought if I were good, both races would suit my capabilities. I think Montréal is harder, there’s more overall climbing. But they’re both tough.”
BMC’s Alessandro Ballan placed in the top-10 of both events one year ago, but he hasn’t raced since the Tour de Pologne, where he crashed out on stage 2.
With a weather forecast of warm and sunny all weekend, the expected large crowds lining the circuits will once again cheer loudest for a Canadian winner. Hesjedal and Tuft are the two men likeliest to fulfill that wish. In 2010 Tuft rode for Garmin, putting in massive work for Hesjedal at both events.
Tuft, the Canadian national road champion, was a late addition to SpiderTech’s squad — in part due to his recently announced transfer to the new GreenEdge squad for 2012, where Gerrans will also ride. But Tuft said the thrill of riding at the biggest races in Canada in the maple leaf jersey was all the motivation he needed to give his best, whether it was for his own chances or for another SpiderTech rider.
“The team wanted to make sure it was doing what is the best thing for team, and that’s a fair call,” Tuft said. “But from my end, I’m here 100 percent for the team, and I’ll do whatever they ask of me. I’m still super motivated. From what I saw last year, this is one of the greatest events I’ve ever seen in Canadian cycling, and I think I’ve done them all. I couldn’t believe the crowds for both races, and how psyched people were. It is pretty refreshing, what it does for Canadian cycling is huge. It brings people to that level, to see what it can be, and people start to believe in it — and not just the fans, but the sponsors, too. They see that it’s worth something, to be part of something this big, and that this needs to keep happening.”