On the same weekend that the Vuelta a España champion will be crowned in Spain, across the pond in Canada the UCI WorldTour will make its lone foray into North America with the fourth running of two taxing one-day events: the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec on Friday, September 13 and the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal on Sunday, September 15.
Despite the fact that the races in Québec and Montreal overlap with the season's final Grand Tour, nonetheless a deeply talented peloton of 21 eight-man teams has been assembled from the 19 WorldTour squads, one Pro Continental squad (France's Team Europcar) plus a Canadian national team formed from the rosters of various Pro Continental and Continental squads.
Headlining the Canadian races are both the number 1 and number 2 cyclists on the WorldTour rankings: Chris Froome (Sky) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale), respectively. Fittingly, Froome will wear dossard #1 whilst competing in Canada and it will be the first time a reigning Tour de France champion has competed in Québec and Montréal. Froome and several Sky teammates, including trusted lieutenant Richie Porte, have been in North America since mid-August, first arriving for Colorado's USA Pro Challenge (August 19-25) and then remaining there to continue training in their build-up to these Canadian races and the world championships. While Froome and company were underwhelming in Colorado, with that race plus additional training in their legs they should be well-equipped to handle the amount of climbing on tap for Friday and Sunday.
Arguably the odds-on favourite for victory both days, Peter Sagan, too, has had a block of racing and training in North America that's been in effect since early August when he arrived in Aspen, Colorado to acclimate to the altitude he'd face during the USA Pro Challenge. The 23-year-old Slovakian champion has been on a tear of late, with four stage wins plus a stint in the leader's jersey in Colorado followed by three stage wins and another stint in the leader's jersey at the inaugural Tour of Alberta (September 3-8). Sagan has competed in the Canadian WorldTour races in both 2010 and 2012, with a second place in the 2010 Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal his only top-10 result, but with another year of racing in his legs to build both strength and tactical acumen Sagan will definitely be a threat in both events.
Sagan also has an eye on the world championships in Italy, taking place two weeks after Sunday's race in Montréal, and it will be curious to see how he fares with his North American build-up, rather than the Vuelta. The last 12 world champions all contested the Vuelta a España prior to winning the rainbow jersey, but Sagan may prove that the racing opportunities on offer in North America, now buoyed by the addition of the Tour of Alberta to bridge the gap between the USA Pro Challenge and the one-day Canadian WorldTour races provides suitable preparation for Worlds.
As none of the previous Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec champions - Thomas Voeckler, Philippe Gilbert and Simon Gerrans - are competing this go round in Canada, a new winner will be crowned on Friday afternoon. The 2012 runner-up Greg Van Avermaet, however, will be racing in Canada as part of a deep BMC squad. The 28-year-old Belgian had a block of North American stage racing at the Tour of Utah as well as the USA Pro Challenge with one stage win in Utah plus five additional podium finishes in both Utah and Colorado. BMC will also field Cadel Evans, recently a winner of a stage at the Tour of Alberta, plus USA Pro Challenge overall champion Tejay van Garderen. Brent Bookwalter, too, is on good form having supported van Garderen in Colorado and then finishing second overall in Alberta.
All three previous champions from the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal - Robert Gesink (2010), Rui Costa (2011) and Lars Petter Nordhaug (2012) - have returned, however, and have shown form this year indicative of a repeat performance. Gesink and Nordhaug are now teammates on Belkin Pro Cycling and while neither have any victories in their 2013 palmares, both have Tour de France finishes in their legs and recent high placings: Nordhaug finished 2nd overall on home soil in Norway's Tour des Fjords while Gesink just finished 5th overall at the Tour of Alberta. Their Belkin teammate Tom-Jelte Slagter is someone, too, who can win on the circuits in Québec and Montréal.
Costa will lead Movistar in Canada nearing the end of a season highlighted by two stage wins at the Tour de France, a stage win and overall victory at the Tour de Suisse, plus a Portuguese time trial title. He's been quiet of late in Plouay, Brussels and Fourmies, but can't be counted out with WorldTour points on the line in Canada.
As has been the case in previous editions, the hopes of Canada primarily rest on the shoulders of Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp). The 2012 Giro d'Italia champion has had a rocky 2013 campaign, however, having had to drop out of the Giro and then push through the Tour with a broken rib, but he arrives in Québec and Montréal in good spirits after finishing the Tour of Alberta. 2010 was Hesjedal's best performance in the WorldTour races, with a 4th in Québec followed by 3rd in Montréal. If Hesjedal should falter, Garmin-Sharp's roster still packs quite a punch courtesy of Lachlan Morton, Andrew Talansky and Tom Danielson.
Another Canadian with strong expectations to perform is Québec's own David Veilleux who will captain the Europcar squad. Veilleux made his Tour de France debut this past July and his season has been highlighted by a stage win on the first day at the Critérium du Dauphiné plus overall victory at the Boucles de la Mayenne. Veilleux's best results in his home WorldTour races have been a pair of 22nd place finished in the 2011 events, but he's surely capable of a strong performance.
There are plenty of other riders capable of reaching the podiums in Québec and Montréal including Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), Alexandr Kolobnev (Katusha), Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Borut Bozic (Astana), Tony Gallopin (RadioShack Leopard), Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEdge), John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano) and Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida).
Venues in Québec and Montréal
On Friday, September 13, the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec will once again be contested on 16 laps of a 12.6km circuit in historic Old Québec totalling 201.6km. The peloton will descend through the Park Des Champs-De-Bataille, race on the Boulevard Champlain along the Saint Lawrence River before starting the steep ascent up the Cote de la Montagne (10% average gradient with its steepest pitch at 13%). The peloton will then negotiate the narrow and undulating streets of the old city before returning back onto Saint Louis for a shallow, 4% rise to the finish line. All in all there's a shade under 3,000 meters of total climbing on tap for the day's racing.
After travelling via train on Saturday to Montréal, the peloton will face the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal on Sunday, September 15 - a 205.7km course comprised of 17 12.1km laps on a circuit rich with cycling history. The venue served as the world championship circuit in 1974 (with Eddy Merckx winning his 3rd men's pro world title), the Olympic Games road race in 1976, a men's World Cup event from 1988 through 1992 plus a women's World Cup event from 1998 through 2009.
The course starts on the Avenue du Parc and the peloton will soon ascend the route's signature climb up Mont Royal (1.8km long at 8% average gradient). The riders will descend the Chemin Remembrance and the Cote-des-Neiges before beginning a more technical stint through the downtown streets surrounding the Université de Montréal. The peloton will ascend the Cote de la Polytechnique (780m at 6% average gradient) mid-way through the circuit and descend along the Cote Ste-Catherines back onto Avenue du Parc where they'll face a 4% rise to the finish.
There's even more total climbing on tap in Montréal - 3,893 meters in all - with a finale typically consisting of a small group of riders duking it out for victory at the day's conclusion.
Both days favour the peloton's strong men that pack a finishing punch - and the most watched man in the peloton will be the rider who best personifies the requisite characteristics - Cannondale's Peter Sagan.