Organizer Serge Arsenault on Canada’s Two ProTour Races

Quebec City and Montreal will be hosting International Cycling Union (UCI) road races this September, the first ProTour races ever to be held in North America. I not only want to attend these races, the Quebec City and Montreal Grands Prix Cyclistes, to watch dudes bike up hills faster than I can bike down them, but I hope to cover the races in some capacity. I’m still cooking up some plans for that, but as part of my research, I spoke with Serge Arsenault, the organizer of the two races, last Friday.

Arsenault has been involved with road racing for more than 30 years. In 1974, he was a Radio Canada commentator for the UCI Road World Championships in Montreal, which the great Eddy Merckx won. From 1988 to 1991, Arsenault organized the races in Montreal that were part of the UCI’s World Cup circuit. His television stations, Serdy Vidéo and Canal Évasion, have broadcasted the Tour de France. Out of these experiences, Arsenault was able gain a UCI licence last summer to hold North America’s first ProTour races.

The Quebec City race, on Friday, September 10, is a 12.6 kilometre circuit that will take riders by the Plains of Abraham and through the old city 15 times. The Montreal race, two days later, is a 12.9 kilometre circuit that takes riders around Mont Royal 16 times. According to Arsenault, they are tough, aggressive courses. He figures only 40 per cent of the riders, out of roughly 170, will finish the race.

“A rider won’t win in Montreal and Quebec City by chance. He and his team will have to have a perfect day and execute their game of chess without mistakes,” Arsenault says alluding to the myriad tactics involved in winning a road race.

For Arsenault, these two races mark the future of professional cycling. From the early 1900s to the 1970s, cycling was a continental European sport dominated by riders from France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain. The riders from the U.K., North America and Australia have only been a fixture over the last 30 years, over which time the field has become even more international. There is pressure to make the ProTour races reflect this growing internationalism and to take the sport beyond Europe. While there are continental UCI races around the world, only Europe and Australia have had ProTour races.

“Both Russia and China want races,” Arsenault says, “In the next year—maximum two years—the U.S. will have race.”

Arsenault wants to be ahead of this wave of expansion and be a part of the new face of cycling. For the two Canadian Grand Prix races, he’s pulling out all of the stops. You know those motorcyclists who follow the cyclists in the Tour de France? The ones with a cameraman on the back. Arsenault has hired those guys because they are the best. It’s a good thing too. These races will be broadcast during the afternoon, Eastern Standard Time, but during prime time in Europe. Arsenault is also trying to create a festival atmosphere around the races. One proposed event is a festival express train that will take riders, journalists and fans from Quebec City to Montreal on the Saturday between the races. The train ride has been billed as an event in and of itself.

There may be one damper on the festivities already though. The races in Quebec will happen in the midst of the Vuelta a España, which is the last of the three Grand Tours, after the Giro d’Italia in May and the Tour de France in July. This arrangement doesn’t seem to worry Arsenault too much. The ProTeams have to send eight racers each to the Canadian races so there will be no problem stocking the event. But how attractive will these races be for riders? Will the big name cyclists want to ride in these new races, or participate in the Vuelta with its history and prestige? In terms of the points a rider can earn from these races, which determine his UCI World Ranking, Arsenault sees the Canadian races as a better deal.

“A winner at both Quebec and Montreal will get 160 points,” he said. “That’s in just two days. A win at the Vuelta, which is 21 days of racing, will bring 170 points.”

Arsenault added that the Vuelta is in decline. This year may be its 75th anniversary, but it also seems to be its last as a 21-day race. In 2011, it will run 14 days. The ProTour calendar is already pretty busy, and will get busier. There just doesn’t seem to be room of 21-day epics. However, the Vuelta still carries weight amongst riders. Dominique Rollin, a member of Cervélo Test Team, has some ambivalence over the Canadian races and the Spanish Grand Tour. He’s the only Canadian on the Canadian-backed team, which is, however, based in Switzerland. He knows it would be good from a marketing perspective to be in Quebec City and Montreal, but his sights are set on the Grand Tours and he would prefer to attend the Vuelta.

I can’t blame Rollin for wanting to go to Spain at the end of August for three weeks. But, I’m keen on watching the Canadian races in their respective cities, even if that press pass doesn’t work out. There are many reasons to go. One of those reasons, which Arsenault pointed out near the end of our conversation, is that cycling is the only professional sport that you can attend for free.

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