Top cyclists fall for the Global Relay Gastown Grand Prix in Vancouver

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      The peloton comes swinging round the corner, hugging the hairpin turn. The lead bike wobbles and slides, its back tire losing traction on the cobbles of Water Street. Thrown from his cycle, the rider crumples into a heap against the straw barrier. Two racers behind him swerve sharply, wheels flicking to avoid the obstruction. One fails. His bike mangled, the rider rolls toward the sidewalk, finally coming to rest in a pile of bodies.

      It might be a competitor’s worst nightmare—but explosive crashes like this one last year make the Global Relay Gastown Grand Prix the most entertaining race on the North American professional calendar.

      The jewel in the crown of B.C. Superweek—a series of eight July competitions held over nine days in the Greater Vancouver area—the Gastown Grand Prix has been throwing riders from their bikes since 1973. One of the most complicated courses in North American cycling, the circular route leads challengers on a tour of Gastown’s arm-rattling topography. Swerving through the tight corner of Carrall and Cordova streets, riders have come to expect more than a few bruised knees from the difficult course.

      And it’s not just the cyclists that have taken a few knocks. Punctured by hiatuses, the race itself sports a long and interesting history.

      The Grand Prix ran consecutively for 20 years until it fell into financial difficulties. First conceived as a pet-project by local cyclist Roger Sumner, the race grew rapidly into one of North America’s premier competitions—but with professional riders flocking to the course, expectations began to rise. Sumner’s original first prize (a very quaint colour TV) just didn’t quite cut it for names like Ron Hayman and Brian Walton, and as the race’s winnings slowly transformed into tens of thousands of dollars, the Grand Prix found it tough to foot the bill.

      Former NDP MLA Emery Barnes (left) joined the race in 1975.
      Global Relay Gastown Grand Prix

      That all changed in 2002. With huge numbers lining Gastown’s sidewalks for the return of the race, sponsors poured resources into the reinvigorated Grand Prix. World-class athletes like Svein Tuft dominated the course, pedalling an elite performance down Gastown’s slippery streets, while superstar Gina Grain used the event as a springboard for her Beijing Olympic campaign. But despite more than 30,000 onlookers turning up to wince at the famous wipeouts, financial troubles forced the Grand Prix to crash out of the pro circuit once again in 2008.

      Luckily for sprint enthusiasts, Global Relay—a Gastown-based technology-services firm—decided to rescue the event. Announcing its position as chief sponsor for the race in 2012, the company promised to fund the event for five years through 2016, and has just pledged support for another half-decade. Single-handedly putting B.C. cycling back on the international calendar, Global Relay offers the richest prize purse of North American criterium events. Awarding more than $210,000 in winnings across its sponsorship period, the event and attracts some of cycling's biggest stars.

      It can get pretty busy for cyclists in the narrow cobblestoned streets of Gastown.
      Global Relay Gastown Grand Prix

      With its intimate layout, the Grand Prix lets you get up close and personal with those familiar faces. Vancouverites jostle on sidewalks and balconies for the best view of the streets. With no ticket required, the course’s looping track means that virtually any location offers a good spot to watch the cyclists’ 50 laps, but ground-level standing room is, understandably, on a first-come-first-served basis.

      Taking in some of Gastown’s best tourist attractions, the route comprises a 60-kilometre course for the men’s race, and a 42-kilometre one for women. Starting and ending at the steam clock, riders shoot west around the hairpin turn at Water and Cordova, ride east past the Cambie and Army and Navy, and take a sharp left turn onto Carrall Street. Competitors then hang another left around the Gassy Jack statue, fly back out onto Water Street, and often take a tumble on its false flat as the other riders squeeze them toward the crash barriers.

      With past competitors including legends like Gord Fraser, Alex Stieda, and even Lance Armstrong, spectators are holding their breath for wipeouts from cycling’s most famous names. The Gastown Grand Prix might be the most sadistic summer event in the city—but let’s admit it. Those falls are damned entertaining.

      The Global Relay Gastown Grand Prix is on July 13.