Global Relay Gastown Grand Prix rides into downtown on major roll
When organizers announced in January that the old Tour de Gastown was returning to the B.C. Superweek schedule for 2012, after a four-year absence, it was a boost to Vancouver’s already thriving cycling community.
The fact that the race falls on July 11—in the middle of Superweek, during the Tour de France and just weeks ahead of the London Olympics—was perfect timing to reintroduce the popular event over the cobblestone streets of one of the most historic parts of town.
And then Victoria’s Ryder Hesjedal made cycling front-page news in this country with his victory in last month’s Giro d’Italia and boosted interest in competitive racing in Canada to a whole new level.
And so the stage is set for 120 world-class male riders and 40 of the top female racers in the world to put on a display of pedal power along Water, Carrall, and Cordova streets for the first time since 2008, when the effects of the world economic downturn led to the disappearance of the Gastown race.
But with the solid backing of a local technology firm looking to inject some life and free entertainment into the downtown core on a weekday evening, the Global Relay Gastown Grand Prix has been (re)born, carrying on a tradition started in 1973.
“The response has been overwhelming—it’s been really, really good,” race director Mark Ernsting tells the Georgia Straight in a telephone interview. “We’ve stuck with the formula of keeping the event the way it was because, to me, that’s part of the history of the race. The importance of the race comes from a few factors; usually it’s over time that it really establishes that name, and part of it is location that helps with bringing that uniqueness to the event. You’ve got a downtown race with high spectator turnout, which creates a lot of energy and excitement for the athletes to feed off of. And you’ve got the history of the event, and with that comes the type of people that have won this race.”
At the top of that list is Lance Armstrong, who won in Gastown in 1991—his first North American street-race victory—launching him to superstardom in the sport. Other notable winners include Canadian cycling greats Alex Steida, Brian Walton, Alison Sydor, and Sara Neil.
This year’s race includes top Canadian riders Svein Tuft of Langley and New Brunswick’s Christian Meier, who both competed alongside Hesjedal in the Giro d’Italia. Both are taking a break from the European professional circuit to lend their support to B.C. Superweek and to race in the revival of the Gastown race.
“What Ryder has been able to do at the international level, that really helps bring awareness to the sport, and especially to events like this one,” Ernsting explains. “For these guys to come and continually support B.C. Superweek, it shows that we are doing the right things, that we treat the riders really well. We help promote them and their teams so that they get good benefit from it. So it’s really a joint effort between the race, the riders, and the community to make sure we’ve got some of the best racing in the Pacific Northwest.”
As the riders in the Gastown Grand Prix contend with the bumpy street surfaces and sharp corners that make the 1.2-kilometre loop so unique, race organizers are hoping the competitors will be urged on by the kinds of crowds that used to support the event.
In its heyday, Gastown could attract upward of 40,000 supporters to line the course, and the hope is that all the attention cycling has earned lately will have people flocking to be part of the action once again.
“Traditionally, we’ve always got between 20,000 and 30,000 spectators, so I think that’s a very realistic number,” Ernsting says of a projected crowd count that equals a B.C. Lions game and is far more than the Canucks can squeeze into Rogers Arena on a given night. “If we can get over 30,000, that would be absolutely fantastic. With Global Relay making a five-year commitment to having this race back—and, really, not even looking at it as just five years but rather the initial five years they want to be involved—they really want to do something for the community.”
And by reviving the race, Ernsting believes that Global Relay has accomplished its goal.
“When people ask about the Gastown race specifically, I tell them about the energy and the electricity that is created when the athletes are performing during the event,” he adds. “You’ve got the combination of the athletes putting on an incredible show and a kind of energy from the spectators that truly has to be experienced in person, versus something that you see on TV. When you see it live and you hear the noise and you feel the wind going by, it’s quite impressive in person, and you get a true respect for the speeds and the energy that is required to perform like that.”
The wheels start spinning in B.C. Superweek with the three-race Tour de Delta from July 6 to 8. The racing continues at the UBC Grand Prix on July 10, followed a night later by the return of the Global Relay Gastown Grand Prix and the Giro di Burnaby on July 12. Superweek concludes with the three races that comprise the Tour de White Rock, which run from July 13 to 15. In all, it’s nine races in 10 days, with riders competing for $105,000 in prize money.
And given the boost in exposure and coverage the sport has been given with recent events, it’s safe to say that cycling is on a roll these days here in British Columbia.
Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio Team 1040. Follow him on Twitter @patersonjeff.