An e-mail from Lance Armstrong to BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie helped set the stage for a new Canadian assault on the Tour de France. When it dropped into Balsillie's inbox more than a year ago, the message broke a logjam that had long frustrated Canadian cycling legend Steve Bauer.
Bauer, who retired from professional racing in the 1990s after winning 14 yellow jerseys at the Tour de France, had always dreamed of assembling a Canadian team to compete in the world's greatest cycling race, but found himself stymied by logistics and funding.
That ended with the e-mail from Armstrong to Balsillie, a keen amateur cyclist. Balsillie invited Bauer to go for some bicycle rides with him, and listened as the best cyclist this country has produced detailed his dream of a Canadian racing team.
Bauer found himself with a new BlackBerry, some money, and all-important corporate connections. Today, Bauer will unveil his new team at a Toronto press conference, the first step in a journey that he hopes will end on the podium of the Tour de France.
"That's the goal," Bauer said yesterday. "It's a way off, but that's where we're headed."
Bauer's team, named for major sponsor Spider-Tech, will create opportunities for promising Canadian riders. In the past, top Canadians (including Bauer himself) competed for European or U.S. teams.
"There was nowhere else to go," Bauer said. "We wanted a Canadian team, but there wasn't one. Now there is."
Bauer has already recruited 15 Canadian riders for the team, and plans to compete in a series of professional races across North America and Europe in 2010.
He thinks it will take a minimum of two years to prepare a bid for the Tour de France, which demands a team of at least 20.
Bauer's team is part of a tectonic shift in the rarefied world of elite cycling in which power has shifted away from a traditional European base. Until American Greg Lemond took first place in the 1986 Tour de France, the accepted wisdom was that it was impossible for a North American to win. The success of legendary European riders such as Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault was chalked up both to their dedication and their cultural background; like Canadian hockey icon Wayne Gretzky, they were born and raised in an environment defined by their sport.
Although the final destruction of that conceit came at the hands of seven-time winner Armstrong, Bauer also played a role. In 1988, he placed fourth in the Tour, the highest a Canadian has finished.
Although he was a single step from the podium, Bauer realized the actual distance involved. Much of it was because of the increasing use of performance-enhancing drugs, which gave an insurmountable advantage to cheaters.
"I got to fourth place riding clean," Bauer said. "But that was it."
In Bauer's view, the doping scandals that later engulfed the sport were part of an essential cleansing that has remade the sport, opening the door once again to genuine competition.
"This is a great time in cycling," he said. "There's an opportunity to win the Tour de France clean. And we want Canadians to do it."