It's been three long years, but for many cyclists in the pro peloton, it has been well worth the wait. Since 2010, the Grand Prix Cyclistes Québec et Montréal have earned a reputation as some of the most popular races on the WorldTour. But these two events were two of the biggest losers when it came to the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet despite a two-year hiatus, they are back in vigor as nothing short of the crême de la crême of pro cycling.
Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), Peter Sagan (TotalEnergies) and Greg Van Avermaet (Ag2r Citroën Team) are just some of the stars that made a transatlantic trip to line up once again for these two events. "These are some of my favourite races and I look forward to coming to them every year," said Michael Matthews (BikeExchange-Jayco), who has won both races. "It feels so great to be back."
Ever since their inception in 2010, these two races met with instant success, quickly earning a reputation in the peloton as impeccably organised races with enthusiastic crowds. While the journey to Québec is long, there is an exotic touch for many riders, who are far from Europe where they spend much of their season. In short, these races provide a unique stage for tremendous racing.
"These two races have been on my bucket list to win for a long time," Wout Van Aert said on Wednesday at the pre-race press conference. Van Aert will be making his debut in these 200km circuit races over the hills of Québec and the city streets of Montréal, and the Belgian knows that both events play to his strengths. However, Covid has got in the way of him making the trip earlier.
"It’s now been three years unfortunately, but obviously a lot has happened in the meantime. So it is just super exciting to come back," said Matthews, who is the defending champion in Montréal after winning there in 2019. "I never would have guessed it would take so long to defend my title, but you know the season didn’t really feel complete without the Canadian classics.
"The course profiles favour certain certain riders, but they are open enough to give a lot of guys something to try. I think that a lot of guys come here thinking that they have a real chance to win. And that makes for great racing. Everyone knows what they are in for. The crowds, the climbs, everything just makes it super special."
Like every year, the riders arrive the Tuesday before the Québec race and spend much of the week riding in and around this historic city. The early arrival is firstly to allow them to recuperate from jet lag, but it also allows them to connect with the public here.
For many, these races have been a perfect warm-up, a sort of dress rehearsal, to the World Championships. Sagan, a three-time world champion and winner of Montréal in 2013 and Québec in 2016 and 2017, knows that as much as anyone.
"These races are a really good preparation for the World Championships," he said. "Having a circuit race like this really helps you work on positioning and things that are so important in a race like the World Championships. It was here where I got my 100th victory, and the public, the crowds, everything is so great."
But while the two Quebec races may be popular, the peloton’s return to Canada was anything but assured. In both 2020 and 2021, the event was cancelled relatively late as the ebb and flow of various Covid waves made it impossible. For the race organiser, simply surviving proved tenuous as it lost certain longtime sponsors, hotels struggled to stay open and the Québec government had to reduce its budgetary commitments because of the cost of Covid on society.
"You know, just a couple of months ago the hotel was nowhere ready to welcome the race," said longtime organiser Serge Arsenault. "They just didn’t have the staff."
"Probably the hardest thing was simply keeping the team together," added his son Sebastien, who took over as the Grand Prix president this year. "It is always hard not to know where you are going. Every year since 2020 we were sure that the Grand Prix would happen in the fall and then it didn’t, but finally it did. An event like this is something that just keeps you going and I think that helped keep the team together."
Even though Serge has now passed the reins of the race over to his son, he is still at the race this year and insists that he is "the biggest fan".
"It’s just very emotional for us," he added. "We love the race and we love the cyclists. We don’t look at the Grand Prix races as an enterprise. For us it is much more about passion. These races are like a theatre piece. The actors are here. We have provided the stage and they will propose a scenario that is interesting. We never know what to expect. But it is always a great story."