Montreal Memories

Confession:  Despite growing up in a devoted Boston Bruins household, I've always had a certain nostalgia for Montreal.

It goes back to 1976.  In the year I fell in love with cycling, the 12.6 km circuit over and around Mont Royal in Montreal was a tenuous thread connecting the exotic, seemingly unreachable world of European cycling to a tangible one we New England amateurs could actually witness first-hand.

Merckx attacks with Poulidor: 1974 Worlds
It started with the older guys in the club who'd piled into hippie vans to watch the 1974 World Road Championships in Montreal.  They came back and told us stories during rides in 'ol Ireland hedge-school fashion.  Only their stories weren't of Cuchulainn or Finn McCool, theirs were of how a Italian giant named Francesco Moser rode up Mont Royal in the big ring.  Of how Bernard Thevenet rode most of the race solo off the front, and had the race seemingly in the bag by minutes.   And of how the great Eddy Merckx waited until the very last lap before unleashing an attack so ferocious, only Raymond Poulidor could hold his wheel; then blowing past an exhausted Thevenet, before simply, predictably dispatching eternal second PouPou off his wheel in the sprint.

It was Merckx' last major championship victory.   And in that time before VCR's, cycling on TV, the internet and you-tube, it was a tale that could only be embellished with reverence by eyewitnesses lucky enough to be there, on the day.  We wide-eyed and thristy teenage students-of-the-sport were limited to gazing at grainy black and white Robert George images in passed-around VeloNews, and trying to imagine what it was like. To race.  And much like farm-boys listening to Williams and DiMaggio homers on the radio in the 40's, a certain imagination was required.

'76 Olympics:  Mount, Johannson, DeWolf, Waugh, Thaler
That summer of '76, imagination was provided with a single video-assist.   The Olympic Cycling Road Race was held on that same Montreal circuit.  And as I'd planned to start my first race in just a few weeks, I eagerly looked forward the TV coverage to maybe get some idea of 'how to race'.   I remember it like it was yesterday.  It was a delayed-tape evening segment.  The ABC commentary was by Frank Gifford (guess he drew the short straw from Roone Arledge that day).  The second half of the race was in driving rain, on a circuit lined with metal crowd control barriers and drenched spectators.  I remember lots of crashes taking out riders on the slippery right hander off the Polytechnic descent.  I remember Bernd Johannson's solo attack - the long-lens camera at the top of that Polytechnic climb, showing him hundreds of yards ahead of the break.  And I can still see the TV motor bike close-up images beside him as he rode up the finish straight in a seemingly never-ending victory salute.

The sprint for the silver and bronze was a serpentine gallop of about 10 or so survivors.  West German Klaus Peter Thaler introduced me to the concept of 'the hook' by riding diagonally across the road to cut off Giuseppe Martinelli, only to get DQ'd by the commissares.  Martinelli got the Silver, a pro contract, and went on to perhaps an even more fame as the Directeur Sportif who's led both Marco Pantani and Alberto Contador (this year) to Tour de France victories.  

But the best part was American George Mount coming home 6th.   At the time, it was a remarkable achievement - for no American had ever been in the top 10 of any world class road cycling event.  And while Montreal had provided US cycling with a thread of recognition and legitimacy, it provided me with much more than a thread of inspiration.

Daydreams of Mont Royal motivated training rides in the days that followed.  Solo time trials in the rain around Beverly, Mass.  Sprints up Sohier road hill, fed by mental images of Johannsen's attack.   My debut race was two weeks later, a 20 mile unsanctioned race from Gloucester to Beverly.  I finished 6th, just like Mount.   I was just 15, on a 30 lb. steel wheeled bike, up against USCF-seasoned Seniors.

From that day on, I was a goner.

World class pro racing only returned to Montreal in '88.  I was there myself this time, as a spectator and somewhat disillusioned ex-racer who'd lost personal ambition but not passion.  I spent the days before the race riding the course with my good friends Steve Pucci and Glenn Hudson, and the evenings frequenting cafes on St. Catherine's Street.  In the race, Steve Bauer and Gilles Delion rode away from the rest.  Bauer's win was a homecoming coronation after being Tour Maillot Jaune for a week or so.   But my most vivid memory of that day was seeing PDM's Greg LeMond get dropped right away, seeming to struggle up Mont Royal as much as I did.  Seeming surprisingly human.  Coming back from his hunting accident, the '88 vintage Greg was a shadow of the man who'd slayed Hinault to win the Tour a few years before.  We sat in the August sun, and debated whether he'd ever come back...

Ballerini, Dhanens, Moreels:  GP Ameriques, 1990
I went back in '89 with a bigger crew from CCB, to a bigger event, this time to witness a resurrected LeMond and other Tour stars like Kelly, Millar and Delgado duke it out.  This was a few weeks after the famous '8 second' LeMond-Fignon TT duel in Paris.  I was lucky to be right there to see a very different LeMond launch the big-ring attack on Mont Royal that exploded the front group with two laps to go.  And to see the great King Kelly masterfully control the race at the front, ensuring his PDM teammate Jogi Mueller took the win.  

Then again in 1990, I shivered watching a young Franco Ballerini beat Rudy Dhanens, in another deluge.  Hard to think they're both gone now to tragic car accidents.

This year, turning 50 the same week as a Pro-Tour race in Montreal was justification enough for another road trip.  Three good friends, a Saturday century-cyclosportive in Vermont in beautiful sunshine, followed by Sunday watching the ProTour's best duke it out on Mont Royal.  What's better than that?

Well, it was as great as advertised.  Saturday, I was very pleased to stick with the flying front group for most of what turned into a 4 1/2 hour Kelly Brush Century Ride, confirming my form's indeed better than it's been in decades.

And after a celebration dinner in Montreal (one that provided an opportunity to debate the definition of what qualifies as 'Crispy Duck' with a clueless waiter), Sunday morning required passing on 'the knowledge' of this circuit to MontRoyal rookies  Brad, Marc and Doug with an early AM two-lap recon of the parcours.

It doesn't matter whether the bike is steel or carbon, the climb is just as hard. And the 21 cog engaged.  Riding up the Camillien-Houde road up Mont Royal that morning, all those years of memories suddenly came flooding back.

"Le plus ca change..."   The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Despite the hard efforts of the day before, I couldn't feel the pedals.   I rode this circuit so full of personal meaning, smack in the middle of this most European of North American cities with a big, S***-eating grin on my face.

It's tough to put into words exactly what I was feeling, maybe it was just nostalgia, tinged with happiness.  A spontaneous joy brought on by riding  well and with new-found form, up the tough climb to a panoramic view of the city - this mountain incongruously placed in the middle of a bike friendly metro.  Or maybe it was the ambiance of the event: its European feel, the history, all the personal connections and memories. Maybe it was this sudden confluence of many diverse inputs, all comfortably connected and reinforced by the simple, timeless act of pedaling a racing bicycle over storied, familiar roads.

You can't kick a ball across Old Trafford.  Or skate Boston Garden.  You can ride around Mont Royal.

I think Jean Bobet has a name for it.  He calls it 'La volupte' in his book 'Tomorrow We Ride':

"It is a pleasure for you alone.. it is a combination of speed and ease, force and grace.  It is pure happiness."

I only know, that for me this brief ride had too much meaning to express coherently.  Lacking Bobet's ability to express it all, I simply turned to the other guys with the only words that made sense at the time.

"What an awesome circuit, eh?"


  1. Masterful prose that helps us "rookies" to appreciate even better this affliction we share with you Eddie O!

  2. Thanks, Eddie, for the history behind the course and the musings on our recent rides. I enjoyed the weekend immensely. Happy Birthday!

  3. Happy 50th Eddy! Back in '76, a group of us from Rhode Island, went to see the Olympic RR. Stayed at the Hotel Americain on St.Catherine's. Don't think I sleep more than 6 hours the three days we were there.
    Good memories, I too have a soft spot for Mt.Royal.


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