Pancake Syrup, Government Money, and the Grands Prix of Canada

How has Quebec, population 8 million, been the only region in North America to host WorldTour racing for the past six seasons? The answer lies in its combination of a dogged race promoter, quality racing, and supportive local governments.

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Let’s clear up one thing right away: despite their geography, the annual pro races in Montreal and Quebec City are full-blown UCI WorldTour events. The same big stars who race the better known, longer established WorldTour races turn up, and with WorldTour points up for grabs – which the riders’ agents use to negotiate salaries – the field is there to race. Even the trivial details have been sorted. The TV motorbikes and their operators, for example, are flown over from France.

But one big thing is missing, and it’s for the good. The hulking motor coaches which cocoon the riders until the racing begins and which give start areas all the diesel-fumed charm of a Greyhound bus terminal are nowhere to be seen. Instead, the Grands Prix Cyclistes de Québec et de Montréal are a trip back to the age when even pros rode to the start and then sat in public view as they gossiped, had massages, and fiddled endlessly with their clothing and bikes.

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How Quebec, with a population of about 8 million, has been the only place in North America to host WorldTour races for the past six seasons comes down to one man, Serge Arsenault. Exactly how he pulls it off, however, is less obvious.

First, the races. As North American courses go, Montreal’s is almost venerable. It’s a variation of the circuit on which Eddy Merckx won the 1974 Worlds. (Although, unlike then, it no longer features beer advertisements, wildly unstable Ford pick-up trucks as team vehicles, or a bizarre, specially made TV camera car.) Raymond Poulidor was, perhaps inevitably, second that day.

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The precise configuration of the course has varied, but one feature has been constant: the 1.8km long, nine percent climb up the small, downtown mountain which gives Montreal its name and which dominates the island city. This year it was climbed 17 times. The road, Voie Camillien-Houde, is named for a mayor of the city who opposed building roads on the mountain’s parkland. Long dead by the time the road opened, Houde had no say in the matter.

Like many people in Quebec sports, Serge Arsenault’s background is in hockey. For many years he was a television commentator on Radio Canada’s Saturday night hockey broadcasts. But, with time, his sports interests broadened. In 1979, he organized Montreal’s first marathon before moving onto cycling in the late 1980s, partly, it appeared, to create programming for his television production company.

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Arsenault’s greatest gift, and perhaps the GP’s biggest weakness, is his ability to shake down governments for sponsorship money. During their first editions in 2010, he estimated the race budget at just over $4 million and expected to lose money. Six years later, the big-money, private sector sponsors remain nowhere to be seen. The only new sponsor is the Quebec Federation of Maple Syrup Producers, owner of the province’s Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve and the OPEC of pancake toppings.

Television rights, which Arsenault hoped would be a prime revenue stream, have also not materialized to a significant extent, perhaps because the races conflict with the Vuelta a España and the Tour of Britain. This year there was no English-language broadcast of either race in Canada, and in the United States it only appeared on the very obscure BeIn Sports.

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Accordingly, signs of economies have appeared. Instead of traveling between the two cities on a private train, the riders and team staff have made the trip on buses the last two years.

When pressed about finances, Arsenault remains an eternal optimist and says he has enough funding for three or four more editions—he is a promoter after all. And it doesn’t take much prodding for him to talk about his ambition for a third race on the East Coast of the United States. While Arsenault claims to be nearing that goal, his description of where it may be remains as vague it as it was in 2010.

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None of that, of course, mattered during the races. Freed from the dismal weather that plagued the previous two editions, the crowds were large and the racing dynamic. Yes, there was the predictable half a dozen-man break that dominated the early racing in Montreal, but it didn’t end with them being predictably swallowed up by the peloton and a bunch sprint.

Catching the break in Montreal shattered the field and the race ended up being a showdown between Greg Van Avermaet, who was riding a resplendent gold-painted frame, and Peter Sagan, the winner in Quebec City. Racing doesn’t get much more WorldTour than that.