The cobbled streets of Vancouver's Gastown neighbourhood are hardly an obvious trampoline to the French Alps.
Yet an annual bicycle race amid the tourists, homeless, and brick buildings of Gastown has indeed helped propel young unknowns to the pinnacle of road racing in France – a list led by Lance Armstrong, who at 19 won the race in 1991, a prelude to his dominance of the Tour de France.
On Wednesday, an event first raced in 1973 returns after a four-year hiatus, the Gastown Grand Prix. The men's event, a 60-kilometre sprint, 50 laps of seven city blocks, is the centrepiece of what's called the B.C. Superweek, Canada's biggest series of road cycling races, nine contest over 10 days in the Vancouver region. Nearly half of the roughly $100,000 in Superweek prize money is up for grabs in Gastown.
Canada is not a serious road cycling country but with the ascendance of Victoria native Ryder Hesjedal, there are hints that there are more riders not far behind the peaks he has climbed. Races such as the B.C. Superweek series are an important venue to develop aspiring riders and as cycling rises in popularity the prospect of new domestic races also emerges.
Gastown has been a long-time cornerstone of domestic road racing. Years before Hesjedal became the first Canadian to win a grand tour – the Giro d'Italia in May – and years before Armstrong's reign, it was local boy Alex Stieda who won the Gastown Grand Prix as an amateur in 1980. Stieda went on to become the first North American to wear the yellow leader's jersey in the Tour de France, in 1986, when he was the leader after the second stage, and finished 120th.
Now Stieda wants buoy Canadian cycling with an international multiday event in Alberta, in September of 2013, for which he is still looking for funding.
"I only wish when I was growing up in the '70s we had these many races here," Stieda said Monday at a press conference to promote the Gastown race and Superweek. "It's very, very encouraging to see these events grow."
The Gastown Grand Prix, which in years past attracted several tens of thousands of fans, died after 2008 when it lost corporate backing. It is now revived by a five-year, $1-million-plus commitment from local tech company Global Relay, whose Gastown headquarters is on the race route.
As Hesjedal garners headlines, there is already clear recent evidence of the importance of Superweek in the development of Canadian cycling. Sebastian Salas, 25, was already known locally as something of a physical freak of nature, setting a hitherto unimagined record time up the Grouse Grind, a famous steep hike on the North Shore Mountains.
Last year, Salas, as an amateur, nearly won several Superweek races and then secured a pro contract. As a rookie this year, he scored the King of the Mountains crown on the Tour of California, and he is again this week among the Superweek racers.
Gord Fraser, one of Canada's best-ever road racers, said contests like Gastown are crucial for Canadian riders. It is the crucible where talents such as Salas learn a business inculcated in European athletes at a far younger age. Fraser believes Salas has the goods for grand tour racing.
"He's got the engine," Fraser said of Salas. "Now he's got to learn the ropes, learn how to read a race, how to position himself well, learn all the tricks to save his legs, and not crash."
Another young local rider is Ben Chaddock, a one-time ski racer who turned to pavement in recent years.
Two years ago, in the Superweek's race in the suburb of Delta, Chaddock won a stage as an amateur, which helped win him a pro contract. Now, the 27-year-old sprint specialist is the recent winner of Canada's 2012 national title in racing criteriums, the multiple laps on a short course on city streets, like the Gastown Grand Prix.
Chaddock sees the major sporting shift happening, not unlike his move from skiing to cycling. Middle-aged men and women turn from golf to road cycling, and younger kids become inspired by the feats of Hesjedal. Chaddock is hesitant to predict a future on European grand tours for himself but sees Canada rising in a sport where it was basically a non-entity through the past century.
"I'm super excited about cycling," Chaddock said, "in Canada, and North America."