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 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
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
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.
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.
"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?"