On the banks of the Saint Lawrence river comes one of the great points of confluence of the season. Now in their 10th year of existence, the Grands Prix Cyclistes de Québec and Montréal have firmly established themselves on the WorldTour calendar, drawing a broad congregation of Classics specialists and Grand Tour riders to Canada each September.
The two races’ proximity to the World Championships is an important part of the attraction, of course, as is their format. Each race sees riders tackle multiple laps of a circuit worthy of the Worlds – literally, in the case of Montreal, which was the site of Eddy Merckx’s triumph in 1974 – but it would be remiss to view the events solely as a dress rehearsal for the main event in Yorkshire in a little over a fortnight’s time.
A cursory glance at the roll of honour since Thomas Voeckler claimed the inaugural GP Québec and Robert Gesink landed the first GP Montréal in 2010 tells it own tale. Over the past decade, the races have affirmed themselves as prizes worth winning in their own right.
Only the grandees of the peloton seem to triumph in Canada, men like Peter Sagan, Michael Matthews, Greg Van Avermaet, Rigoberto Urán and Philippe Gilbert.
Yet if the GP Québec and GP Montréal owe their initial existence to the ambition of the WorldTour project, then they have thrived almost in spite of the vagaries of its calendar, given that the races must co-exist each year with the final weekend of the Vuelta a España.
No matter, large crowds line the streets of Quebec City and Montreal each September, while over time, Canada has slowly matched – and perhaps now surpassed – Spain as the peloton’s preferred pathway to the Worlds.
This weekend, certainly, the marquee names belong to men who will be expected to shine at the forthcoming World Championships in Yorkshire, most notably Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep).
The Frenchman has been the season’s outstanding performer, from his searing series of spring wins – among them, Milan-San Remo, Strade Bianche and La Flèche Wallonne – to his extraordinary adventure in the maillot jaune at the Tour de France.
Alaphilippe’s overriding target in the dying weeks of his remarkable campaign is to become France’s first elite men’s world champion since Laurent Brochard in 1997. After sitting out most of August – and passing up on some very lucrative criterium contracts in the process – Alaphilippe began his Worlds build-up at the Deutschland Tour and the Canadian races will be his final test before Yorkshire.
His abilities as a puncheur and finisher make him a contender in just about every kind of one-day race, and the circuits in both Quebec and Montreal look perfectly tailored to his characteristics.
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) has won in both Quebec (2016 and 2017) and Montreal (2013), and is an obvious contender here, even if he has raced just once since taking a record seventh green jersey at the Tour in July. Michael Matthews (Sunweb) won both races last year and is another man who has not seen much competitive action since July, but has the uncanny knack of winning even after a limited diet of racing.
Other past GP Montréal winners in the field this week are Diego Ulissi (UAE Team Emirates) and the Belgian duo of Greg Van Avermaet (CCC) and Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), both of whom will be vying for important roles in Rik Verbrugghe’s national team in Yorkshire – and mindful that Philippe Gilbert is delivering firm messages of his own on the Vuelta.
19-year-old Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-QuickStep), already selected to the elite team for Yorkshire, will also be one to follow closely in Canada, as will Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale), recently a winner of the Bretagne Classic.
Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos) is in on hand as he fine-tunes his approach to Yorkshire, where the time trial will reportedly be his main target, while Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) will decide on his Worlds participation based on his sensations in Canada. His teammate Sonny Colbrelli, second in Montreal in 2018, will be in action in Yorkshire, together with Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First).
Hardly by chance, there has been a steady flow of Quebecois riders to the WorldTour peloton in the decade since these races were inaugurated, and Sainte-Perpétue native Hugo Houle (Astana) will be the man carrying local hopes this time out.
Canadian Michael Woods (EF Education First), a bronze medallist in the Innsbruck Worlds last year, is a contender here, while 42-year-old Svein Tuft (Rally) will line out for some of the final races of his fine professional career.
A year ago, the Grands Prix de Québec and Montréal allowed Michael Matthews to put a different complexion on a previously ill-starred season, and riders like Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates), Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Ineos) and Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin) are among those who travel to Canada hoping for similar this time out.
If recent history is any guide, a rider who manages to ignite his season in Quebec in September can keep the flame burning all the way through to the end of the year.
Friday, September 13 - Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec
The Canadian racing gets underway on Friday with the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec, which takes in 16 laps of a 12.6km circuit that winds through the Parc des Champs de Bataille on the banks of the mighty Saint Lawrence river. Each circuit features the short climbs of the Côte de la Potasse and the Montée de la Fabrique before a drag of more than 1 kilometre to the finish line on the Grande Allée.
It is a finale perfectly tailored for finisseurs like Alaphilippe, Sagan and Matthews, and a most useful examination ahead of the Worlds. The sheer volume of climbing through the race’s 201km – almost 3,000 metres in total – is enough to soften the punch of all but the very strongest riders on the final lap.
Sunday, September 15 - Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal
When the Grands Prix Cyclistes were first held in 2010, it was initially suggested that their order would alternate every other year. The less populous Quebec City is a more amenable training venue than Montreal, however, making it a more suitable base for riders in the preamble to the two races. Besides, it is perhaps fitting that the more demanding route in Montreal provides the finale to the Canadian series.
Indeed, this year’s event in Montreal is the most arduous yet. At the request of the riders and teams, Serge Arsenault and the race organisation have added two laps to the event, extending its distance to 219.6km and its total climbing to 4,734 metres. In short, the perfect primer for the World Championships.
The 2019 Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal takes place on a tough 12.2km circuit in the Parc du Mont-Royal that gives its name to the city. It is a circuit with a considerable heritage. As well as hosting Merckx and Geneviève Gambillon’s rainbow jersey triumphs of 1974, it was also the site of Bernt Johansson’s victory over Giuseppe Martinelli at the Olympic Games two years later.
The course features three climbs, as well as a short kick up to the finish line, for a total of 263m on each lap. First up is the Côte Camillien-Houde (1.8km at 8%), followed by the Côte de Polytechnique (780m at 6%, including a portion of 11%). The summit of the climb up Boulevard Mont Royal (800m at 4%) comes just under 3km from the finish line. After a section of false flat and a short descent, the road rears up once again in the final 500 metres on the drag to the finish line on the Avenue du Parc.
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