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Quebec City: Heroes in the Street

Saint Louis PelotonI have watched the riders for two decades. In that time, the bikes have grown lighter, more complex. Carbon fiber frames, electric gearshifts and perfectly spaced cassettes where the chain flows seamlessly from one cog to the next, all serve to shave ounces and increase power.

I have suffered through the Tour de France’s interminable, undulating flats where the competitors trade the agony of the high mountains for the agony of high-speed crashes. And, following the final sprint for the finish, I have rejoiced with the heroes who claimed the yellow, green and polka dot jerseys. I expected no less from the premier stage of the Grands Prix Cyclistes de Québec. Held in early September, the Grands Prix promised a celebration of youth played out in massive thighs, movie star looks and three percent body fat.

The talking heads typically get it wrong. Most have raced, but the years have taken a toll and the commentators are now far better in front of a camera than leading a peloton. Total Grand Tour podiums aside, all know if they ask the wrong question they can kiss future interviews goodbye. To preserve access, they pose easy, velvet glove requests: team tactics, the pace, why one rider was dropped. No matter that the questions are rhetorical, the point is to capture fifteen seconds with Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Sylvain Chavanel or Peter Sagan.

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The truth demands hard questions. But there’s little chance of that when Froome and the rest are ringed by corporate handlers. Sponsors fund ninety five percent of the team’s expenses, pay the salaries and underwrite TV feeds and though controversy sells, no one likes a wreck—not on the streets of Quebec City, or on the podium.

Case in point.

Peter Sagan spent two weeks abjectly apologizing after he fake pinched a trophy girl on camera. Sagan may lay claim to the “Future of Cycling,” but a pinch, even a fake one, can be dangerous in a sport where riders exceed two hundred heart beats per minute, burn two thousand calories per hour and earn half a million dollars per year.

Superstar of Superstars Lance Armstrong’s Icarus like fall from seven yellow jerseys nearly destroyed the sport. Bicycling is still struggling to leave Armstrong‘s doping autocracy behind and though most spectators can’t tell the difference between Endorphins, Adrenalin, Testosterone and IPO…. it’s the endorphins that still cause problems. Free, easily available and highly addictive, it’s a wonder why Vitamin E hasn’t been outlawed by the FDA.

Endorphins? The talking heads know not to ask.

Instead a TV reporter cautiously inquires. “What would a podium finish mean for your team?”

A second bravely ventures, “You look to be in fantastic shape.”

Another who does not equate success with on camera sound bytes might ask, “Do you believes in ghosts?”

There is no easy answer. At least not in Quebec City. Here, halfway up the Cote de La Montagne, where screaming spectators and colorful bistros stair step up the thirteen percent grade, Peter Sagan knows to hide his anaerobic despair. Judging from his expression, he might as well be sipping an espresso in a Rue Saint Jean patisserie.Rue Saint Jean patisserie.

One powerful down stroke follows the next until Sagan slams against his maximum heart rate. Time, place and velocity compress and one hundred meters beneath the Seminaire de Quebec, a powerful cocktail of testosterone and endorphin flood his cerebral cortex. It is here that the first ghost appears.Peter Sagan Cote De La Motagne

Charging up the Rue du Fort, the powerfully built Slovak focuses on a pale Quebecois who is standing alone a short distance from the crowd. The figure’s face is shadowed by a high-crowned felt hat trimmed with ostrich feathers. He is roughly clothed in a homespun wool shirt, heavy capot and souliers sauvages on his feet.

You could make a case that he is simply an actor hired by Tourism Quebec for historical color. The truth, however, is far more compelling. Samuel de Champlain founded the city in 1608 and now, four centuries later, has grown weary of his post on Dufferin Terrace. Lonely, weathered and curious about the Grands Prix, Champlain’s spirit has climbed down from the marble pedestal in front of Le Château Frontenac.

You can believe in ghosts, or not, but there is little doubt that Champlain’s prodigious physical strength haunts the peloton. A hundred meters further along Saint Louis Street the riders fly beneath the Quebec City’s blue, gold and white flag. Drifting in a light rain, the flag pays homage to the Citadelle’s white walls and Champlain’s golden ship, the Don de Dieu that tacks across the blue Fleuve Saint-Laurent.Chateau Frontenac

The racers have no time to dwell on why the Father of New France sited Quebec City on the pinch point of the Saint Lawrence. Champlain knew whoever held the cliffs owned the fur trade that flowed northeast out of the Great Lakes. Team managers have no interest in flags about Samuel Champlain or the geopolitics of Canada’s 17th Century fur trade. Their job is to cheer or discipline or bark splits into the racer’s earpieces.

Approaching the Porte Saint Louis that pierces the Vieux-Quebec’s massive stone walls, Cadel Evans makes eye contact with a lone figure watching from the wall. A second passes between them before 2011’s Tour de France winner disappears into the tunnel. Cadel Evans

Dressed in a leather jacket that resembles Renaissance armor, the figure crosses the wall and watches the peloton disappear around a corner. Covered by a tricorn hat, he has a determined jaw, dark serious eyes and tight black curls that fall to his shoulders. Another actor? Or Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville–Canada’s finest soldier inspecting the City’s defenses….as he has inspected them for two centuries.

By now the peloton has swept through the Parc des Champs-de-Bataille and onto the Boulevard Champlain. Second to a career ending crash, pro-cyclists fear the insane fans who crowd the course. Some dress like Satan, others sprint in red thongs. Many run with national flags. One deeply weathered figure has come as a Voyageur. His wide set eyes, massive shoulders and strong jaw speak of bitter cold, blazing heat, interminable distances and desperate, hard work. Protected by a rough woolen jacket, thick ceinture fléchée cap and worn moccasins, he steps off the curb into the path of the charging peloton. How the field misses him is a mystery. One moment he is rooted in the street, the next he is gone.

Neither the peloton, nor spectators recognize Louis Jolliet–Quebec’s revered explorer. Jolliet loved the power of rivers—loved them so deeply that he mapped the Mississippi four hundred miles to the Gulf of Mexico. As a testament to his discoveries, cities in Illinois, Montana and Quebec still bear his name. Upon his return to Quebec, Jolliet traced the Saint Lawrence north to Labrador and Newfoundland. Surviving texts record he disappeared in May of 1700 while returning to his estate on Anticosti Island. As it should be, his body was never found.

The Grands Prix curves along Champlain Boulevard beneath the Plains of Abraham where the Citadelle’s massive fortifications tower above the Saint-Laurent River. The French built the original enclosure in 1745. To protect against a possible American invasion the British later expanded the French’s solid start to the present star shaped stone redoubts.

Few, if any in the boisterous crowd, pay attention to the ephemeral figures watching from the Promenade des Gouverneurs. The man on the left is attired in a black tricorn, red jacket, red pants, and ceremonial sword of a 18th Century British General. The other is dressed in a gold trimmed black tricorn, gold embroidered green waist coat, white shirt, white riding pants and black boots. A sword hangs from his waist and he holds the reins to a nervous black stallion.Cittadelle

They could be actors. Or they could be the ghosts of British General James Wolfe and French General Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm. Two and a half centuries have passed since the Generals faced each other across the Plains of Abraham. Both were mortally wounded in the early dawn volleys of September 13, 1759. Wolfe was struck by three musket balls, Montcalm succumbed to a single ball beneath his ribs.

If the two figures are indeed ghosts of those long dead soldiers, you have to wonder if they made peace in the two hundred and fifty years since that early fall morning? And now, like two weathered old friends, do they marvel at the strength and endurance of the young men flying up the Boulevard Champlain?

One 12.6 kilometer circuit on the sinuous course will challenge a fit rider . Six will begin to winnow the field. Sixteen laps, two hundred kilometers and three thousand vertical meters will destroy all but the freakishly strong. Flanked by screaming crowds and silent statues the riders swing between euphoria and agony. Swept along in high-speed sprints, they focus on the surrounding wheels, cassettes and cranksets. When the course turns abruptly up, they dream of training rides through Quebec’s Parc Nationale de la Jacques-Cartier Sepag where the moose slip from the blazing leaves to wade the Jacques Cartier River. On cool fall days, park rangers guide float trips and lead nature hikes across the rocky cliffs and through the subterranean chambers created when the massive granite blocks separated from the cliffs. Here, twenty miles from Quebec City, the Parc’s glaciated valley walls and deep hardwood forests echo of 17th Century Voyageurs who traded with the indigenous Algonquins, Crees, Wendats and Mohawks.Rue Saint-LouisConti

Racing along Saint-Louis Street though Vieux-Quebec, the peloton passes in front of the Conti Café. A few of the riders have savored the Café’s entrecôte de bœuf sur gril, sauce poivrée. Others have dined on la bavette de cerf aux bleuets at Le Grafitti on Avenue Cartier while still others have marveled at the suprême de pintade rôtie, choux farci à la chair confite et foie gras, sauce au sureau at E´chaude on Rue du Sault au MatelotDSC_0063

A dozen laps into the Grands Prix the riders refuse to suffer in public. Instead they race through the shadow of the Basilica of Notre Dame de Quebec and past the Hotel Frontenac where the teams stay and the young girls wait at the back doors to catch the eye of a bike racer as rock star. Chains locked in high gears they hammer past the Fontaine de Tourny and the Parliament Building.Parliament Building

Scholars insist that history is a living discipline. Giving substance to that truth, the Parliament’s grounds offer an equal measure of adventure, heroism and tragedy. Wolfe, Montcalm, Cartier, Champlain, Joillet, Frontenac D’lberville…Soldiers, Voyageurs, First Peoples, Martyrs and Statesman stare out from the Parliament’s limestone façade at other bronze figures who lead away from the Place de l’Assemblee-Nationale into Vieux Quebec’s cobblestone streets and narrow alleys.Cote De La Montgne

Pinned to max 02 uptake, each lap approximates a quarter century in Quebec City’s colorful history. By the final lap, two hundred kilometers of sheer climbs, screaming crowds and jarring cobblestones have shattered the field. The domestiques have fallen away, leaving the strongest team members locked in a wheel to wheel duel to the finish.

Robert Gesink of Belkin-Pro Cycling wins the 2013 Grands Prix Cyclistes de Québec City in four hours, fifty-eight minutes and thirteen seconds. Arthur Vichot of FDJ.FR finishes second. Greg Van Avermaet of BMC is third. All share the same time. After two hundred kilometers and three thousand vertical meters, the difference between first and third amounts to a wheel. Peter Sagan is six seconds back in tenth, Cadel Evans arrives two seconds later in twelfth. Fifty-five others abandon.

In the post race press conference, the winners agree with the talking heads. “Sure…of course, the course was tough. The Cote de la Montagne section…well what can I say…it broke the field.”

“Ya, no doubt, I could not have done without my team and sponsors.”

“Next year? The Grands Prix Cyclistes de Québec? Of course I’ll defend.”

No one mentions the Endorphins. The place and groove are wrong. The same holds true for questions about Ghosts.

On thing, however, is true. The pros would be lying if they denied Quebec City is haunted by heroes.


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For Information about:
Lodging, Restaurants, Shopping, Activities and Events

Restaurant Le Graffiti

Le Conti Caffe

Restaurant Echaude

Grands Prix of Quebec

Parc National de la Jacques-Cartier Sepag

Sailing on the Saint Lawrence

Siberia Station Spa

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