Lost races of the Northeast: Le Tour de la Gaspésie
C'mon, admit it. Most of us amateurs, from the time we first stomp on pedals in anger, from that first adrenaline rush riding in a peloton, that sound of whirring chains and wind, incubates a dream of riding a 'Tour'. A real stage race, one longer than the 3 or 4 day long weekend versions available nowadays. A race with commissaires, run from town to town in a place where the road signs are in a foreign language. A race with stages measured in kilometers, one where words like revitaillement, grimpeur, hors-delai and voiture balai are quickly added to your daily vocabulary.
Back in the 1980 and '81, if you were a New England based Cat 1 or 2 rider longing to ride a Tour, you basically had two options: Get selected for the internationally known Coors Classic in Colorado, or work your way onto a team doing Québec's Tour de la Gaspésie. While I had neither the talent nor the palmares for the former, in 1981 I was lucky enough to get in a squad for the latter.
Although in the middle of it, I don't know if 'lucky' is the word I'd have used...
After 30 years, the memories are still vivid, and the fatigue is still there, just thinking about it. It was a lifetime of emotions and drama crammed into a week. So sit back wielersupporters, grab a Trappisten ale, and indulge if you will, this old forcat's 30 year old extended memoir of a truly fantastic, lost race.
|1981 Tour de la Gaspesie Route|
I first heard of it by word-of-mouth from my Benotto teammate, Vince O'Connell, who'd just ridden the 1980 edition, won by Quebec's Daniel Perigny. To hear Vince tell of it, the Gaspesie was a real European-style stage race, with incredibly hard climbs. He planned to go back. I figured hey, if Vince could do it, so could I...how hard can it be? Ever the dreamer, I made it my big goal for 1981.
The numbers should have given me a clue as to what I was in for: 1,485km, or 922 miles in 9 days. 15 stages. (That's right, two stages most days Einstein!) 6 man teams representing the best riders in Canada, and some top US clubs.
|Daniel Perigny: Winner of the 1980 |
Tour de la Gaspesie.
(Robert F. George Photo)
After extended rendezvous in Malden, Portsmouth NH and Portland, we headed north in Constantin's red Ford van through Maine and into that pine tree desolation otherwise known as New Brunswick. I remember bragging I thought I might be good for a stage win. The other guys agreed it was possible too.
It was pouring rain. As we hadn't ridden in a day or so, we got out to do some 'tempo' riding along the way. Middle of nowhere, New Brunswick. Road, trees, rain, and undulating rough pavement. As we immediately went into a 4 man TTT in the big ring, I realized my 'stage win' ambition was a dream slipping away. The form wasn't good. I kept getting dropped, couldn't pull through. I saw that 'oh-oh' look in the eyes of my teammates, frustrated by waiting, but too kind and polite to say a word. It was a bad omen.
|"Doughboys always suffer in Tours"|
We arrived in the start town of Amqui late in the evening two nights before the race. A cold rain was still coming down, a weather pattern that would continue for much of the week. It may have been the height of summer, but temperatures were down in the 50's. Shorts stayed in the bag and tracksuit bottoms and blue Benotto raincapes stayed on almost all the time. Welcome to Canada.
We picked up our number packets and checked out the opposition. The buzz at sign-in was about cycling politics - some controversy and drama about race favorite Louis Garneau being forced to ride for the Canadian National team when many felt he should be leading the Quebec regional team. It was an opener to the regional rivalry between team Quebec, team Canada and team Ontario that ran throughout the race and at times made your average Bruins-Canadiens match look tame.
I still recall some of the teams and riders. the line up was:
I still recall some of the teams and riders. the line up was:
- Canadian National Team: (Martin Cramaro, Louis Garneau, Bruce Spicer )- Other Canadian Provincial selections from Ontario, the Maritime Provinces, and British Columbia.
- Quebec Cycling Federation: (Ross Chafe, Patrick Raux, Gervais Rioux, Danny Delongchamps)
- Quebec Cycling Federation: (Ross Chafe, Patrick Raux, Gervais Rioux, Danny Delongchamps)
In addition to our Italian sponsored Benotto squad, the other US teams included:
- Fitchburg Cycling Club/Wurzburger: Directed by my old friend and Cape Ann Wheelmen founder Rick Horsman, the team in green was led by his protege, and 1981's breakout star, Matt Anderson, the 1979 Mass-RI district champion Rob Butler, and my old pal Phil Cormier.
- Turin Bicycle (Chicago): This strong team sponsored by SIDI and Rossin had former 1974 US Junior champion and seasoned ACBB veteran David Mayer Oakes, and I think Karl Maxon, who later went on to a pro career and a ride in the Giro d'Italia.
- Minnesota: A team which had the very strong Flanders Brothers.
- NH/Maine composite team.
The Tour de la Gaspesie was organized by the late Yvon Guillou, a great of Quebec cycling who also organized the Tour du St. Laurent from 1954-1962 (video here). The Tour was sponsored by the Bank Caisse Populaires Desjardins and Pepsi. In rural Gaspe where it seemed fishing and agriculture made up a good chunk of the economy, the Tour Cycliste was a big event. There was daily TV coverage on regional TV every evening. And I'd never before experienced kids lining up for autographs from riders at the vans. The organization was excellent. 9 days of rider housing and meals: All was taken care of, for an entry fee of...wait for it....$30. Yes, just thirty dollars per rider.
The first stage from Amqui to Rimouski was a shock. Despite being assured by many it wasn't too mountainous and I could get through it, it didn't matter. Unlike US road races, where the early miles are often in a big fat bunch, that never happened at Gaspesie. It was like a European race. Right from the start, we were lined out, and riding a bloc. And if you weren't constantly trying to move up, or pulling hard, you were quickly moving back, or off the back. I remember Fitchburg's Matt Anderson got a flat right away, and needed to fight for his life to get back on, which he did. Class. When the race hit the very first long climb, I got spit out the back, and ended up chasing all day with a vet from the maritime provinces team. Just one stage done, and already many minutes out of the GC. So much for an easy run-in.
|The Benotto Sprint Hunter: 1981|
Day 2 dawned pouring rain and cold. The morning Stage 3 was a hilly circuit race around Mont Joli. Up and down, and fast. I remember as we went into the last lap, just hanging on for dear life at the end of a long long line. Looked around and I was the last guy. For the first time on the bike I remember actually praying out loud, please GOD, let me hang on. Mercifully, it slowed just a fraction, and I did hang on, finally finishing in the peloton. I was wasted.
|"I raced 140k along the St. Lawrence|
in the rain, and I all I won was this
A group of a dozen got up the road right away, and I found myself in the third group that contained the yellow jersey - a young kid from Ontario who was chasing like his life depended on it. Louis Garneau was in that group too, but looking a lot more relaxed. I remember because I was eating a banana, and he asked me if he could have some. It felt a little like that time the schoolyard bully tried to get my lunch money, but I quickly did the calculus: Give in to my instinct to say 'buzz off, superstar' -- or give him some and maybe get a favor later. I gave him half. Always respected Louis G., a good guy.
That was the day I figured out one of the best wielrenner survival tricks: How to turn your brain off. If I thought about how far I needed to go, sooner or later, I'd have quit. You might have too. Instead I never thought of the end, I remember consciously deciding to 'stop thinking', and just ride in the moment. The breaks came back and another went, and it split again, and again the chasing went, all afternoon. Yo yoing echelons, lined out in rain along the St. Lawrence. It was cold, pouring, and hard to see. And the weather only got worse. Never out of the big ring. A real bike race, you know?
Toward the end the groups started coming back more easily. I looked around at the other faces, wet, shivering and wasted, and it gave me new power. We doughboys have our races too, those held in cold 50 degree rain. Revenge time. Many had misunderstood that the 16k neutral start zone didn't count in the overall distance, which meant there were more K's added on. The unanticipated extra distance made some guys literally fold. It was dark, headlights were on, and the rain still driving off the sea. A group snuck away, and this time, I went along with it. The finale. Where's the end? There's the banner. A sprint. Didn't get that stage win, but came as close as I was going to.
The lasting memory of that day was after the finish. Like you see in the pro races, before and after each stage, you had to go to the Pepsi van and sign 'control:' A laminated plastic card with a grid, and a place for each dossard number. At that finish in the town of St. Anne Des Monts, the rain turned that control placard into a wet inky blur. I added my inky initials to the smeared wet mess, and turned around to a scene from a battlefield dressing station at Pachendaele. Guys shivering, some with hypothermia. It was carnage. A lot of abandons that day.
Welcome to Le Tour jongen. And that was only day two.
|Eddy's typical Gaspe climbing position: Solo, and OTB.|
That night in the small town of Riviere Au Renard, I was pretty dejected. Our team wasn't doing much, and none of us were happy, particularly Constantine. The maillot jaune had moved over to Martin Cramaro of the Canadian national team. Small eastern Quebec fishing towns have two religious landmarks - a Church, and a Hockey Rink. And every night on the Tour, stage towns would have a festival at the local assembly place, usually the hockey rink. I went for a beer with a few teammates instead of turning in early.
Day 4 and Stage 6 was a big double loop to Gaspe around the Parc Nationale du Forillon. A decisive day in the GC. Right from the start, a break of big favorites got up the road. Our Tony Chastain, Ross Chafe of Quebec, and Louis Garneau of Team Canada were in it I recall, forget who else.
I was feeling good finally, and found myself in the next group with Cramaro, Rob Butler and other Quebec team riders who missed the move. I was getting hassled for not pulling after Chastain, and nearly got into a punch up with a Quebec rider. I remember Gervais Rioux attacking out of our group like a bullet in the finale. Can still see it today, it should be the textbook reference of 'how to attack'. He was gone, and took a few others with him. I took the sprint of the first big group in, but well behind the breakaways. Our DS Constantin was finally pleased by my performance, and remember him clapping me on the back. Garneau and Chastain were equal first on GC now. They gave out two Maillot Jaunes. Suddenly, a team that was getting laughed at, had a yellow jersey to defend.
|The Quebec team won the team classificication.|
One of their stars was stage winner, Gervais Rioux
The next morning Stage 7 should have been a simple transition stage to Perce on the easternmost point of the Gaspe, where the afternoon's circuit race was the real difficulty in the forecast. I remember standing in the rain on the start line and itching to race, while others were starting to be a bit doom and gloom. I was actually starting to enjoy the race, form coming, and was motivated by seeing others start to break down mentally. That morning should have been easy, but my turn of good fortune hit the reverse button.
An early miles flat tire, slow change, another chase without getting back, a crash on a descent, a twisted derailleur in the spokes, and a forced abandon. A ride in the voiture balai (broom wagon) to the finish. Tears of frustration, followed by exhausted sleep. A humiliating arrival to my 'equipe' to dress my road rash. Tour over, by KO.
That afternoon the Tour was played out on Stage 8: A circuit fermé race around Percé, each time up and over a climb ominously but appropriately named 'Mont Gargantua'. It's up a road named the Route des Failles. Read this great description. It might arguably be one of the toughest climbs in northeastern North America. It was a 2.2km wall averaging 15% - with sections reaching 17% - straight up from a picturesque coastal village overlooking Perce Rock, an amazing geological wonder jutting out of the middle of the Atlantic just off the coast. The climb was followed by a serpentine descent off the backside, and a final 50 mph+ drop into Percé, with the stunning panorama of Perce Rock beyond. At the start, there was a protest or some controversy over how many laps would be run. The race finally commenced after an agreement to shorten the number of times over Mond Gargantua. I think it went from seven to four or something, don't exactly recall.
But it didn't really matter. They only really needed one.
I went ahead up the climb with other abandoned riders to get a ringside seat for the battle. Here they come, up the wall. The entire field - leaders as well - were tacking back and forth, up that wall in 42x26 or 28's. And yes, even the leaders were tacking. Louis Garneau's yellow jersey was on the front, along with Bruce Spicer I think if memory serves. Behind, there was carnage. The peloton exploded in just the first mile.
This was the stage where the GC was set, Garneau was solidifying his hold on the maillot jaune, one he'd keep till the end of the Tour. Tony Chastain was defending the second yellow jersey well in the 2nd group, keeping his place near the top of the GC. All those blue jerseyed team Quebec riders with Esso shoulders and a white fleur-de-lis on the front were up amongst the leaders.
The Gargantua climb is incredibly hard -- it makes the Muur look like kid stuff. A survival test for already shattered legs, and over-fatigued engines.
|Serpentine descent of the Route des Failles|
That very morning, I couldn't wait to race. But after riding up the Gargantua just once that same afternoon, I confess feeling more than a little relief that I didn't have to do it again. Even the brave fear crucifixion.
Percé. It was brutal. And it was beautiful.
And with that, the GC was basically set. The next few days kept that torrid, two-stages-per-day pace. Paying back sleep deprivation, I'd find myself napping like the dead during the afternoon circuit races, my body just exhausted. The Quebec regional teams started on a tear, with local heroes Dany Delongchamps, Patrick Raux and Gervais Rioux always at the head of affairs of the breaks on each stage. Gervais was a Gapse boy from Mont Joli, very aggressive, and very popular. And Garneau was always smartly there resplendent in yellow. It was a Quebec led festival.
|Carton and Mont St. Joseph|
Benotto's own Tony Chastain won that TT, and moved up to 2nd overall where he'd stay for the rest of the Tour. Our team celebrated watching a 30 minute recap on TV that night in the home of one of our generous host families. Tony was down to two teammates who were way into the survival suffer zone. Vince O'Connell was fighting braveheart style to stay in there, and Freddy Dunn was riding himself into the red every day, and almost delirious with fatigue. Tony basically got his second place with very little team support. He was a monster, impressive.
|CHAU -TV climb|
He was not alone in losing it. I can completely understand how easy it is for riders to go off during a big stage race. Cadel Evans and Jurgen Van den Broucke at the Tour being celebrated examples. Those that critique should walk in their shoes. After 5 or 6 days of racing, a kind of battle fatigue sets into even the best prepared riders. Managing temper becomes a question of temperament. If you're hot blooded, you're more susceptible to the least little thing making you go off. I remember talking about it with my friend, the Fitchburg Cycling Club D.S. Rick Horsman at the time. He said he'd seen men get into that same kind of state once before.
I learned in my Gaspesie experience how much stage racing plays to what you do off the bike, and how much a placid temperament matters, and helps. Coppi used to say: 'You win a Tour in bed,' and he was right. You could see it in the example set by the Quebec team. At the end of every stage, they'd be off within minutes to their lodging, maximizing rest time. We didn't have our act together to the same degree, we wasted time hanging about. The missed rest time adds up. You'd also learn how not getting revved up over the little things can save precious energy. It puts stories of famously implaccable riders like Zoetemelk and Kelly in persepective, guys who just would ride, eat, sleep, - total pros, 24/7. That's what you need to be, to survive a Tour.
|1981 Tour de la Gaspesie Champion Louis Garneau |
here riding in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics
Nothing much changed on Saturday other than delivering more accumulated fatigue into the survivors' legs. Sunday morning I started to behave like a wielrenner again, and suited up to ride the morning 80k road Stage 14, with embrocation, shorts and rain cape, solo ahead of the bunch. I played the 'ol start 10 minutes ahead and try to stay ahead of the bunch as long as possible game. I was wailing along in the rain in the big ring 53x16, 15. Pedaling in the butter. I thought I'd make it, but just before the end the lead cars came by me. I pulled over and off the road as instructed by a pissed-off commissaire, and watched the bunch of survivors come by one more time on a typical Gaspe roadside.
I was treated to a scene I'll forever cherish. The sight of the entire peloton riding by, all singing the cheezy theme song for Le Tour de la Gaspesie cycliste. You see, ever stage morning at the depart, and at every finish, they'd play this hoky French folk song whose only lyrics I remember as, "Roule, Roule, Roule, Danse..." The bunch rolls by, not really racing, just singing that stupid song, all laughing. Happy it was almost over. I was ready to get back home too, and chased them all the way back in to the Amqui finish.
There was one anticlimactic, rainy Criterium that afternoon in Amqui which I think was taken by the Team Quebec's enforcer-beast Dany Delongchamps in a tight sprint (Picture a cross between Belgian pro Fons De Wolf and one of the Hanson brothers from Slapshot -- one was well advised not to get on Dany's bad side!)
The race ended with an awards ceremony at the Hockey rink in Amqui that evening. Team Quebec won team GC, and swept up a lot of the cash, but there wasn't really a lot of it back then. Tony Chastain came 2nd, and snagged an early ride back home with the Turin boys after handing me his allotment of O'Keefe beer. And that night, I had more than my share. Freddy Dunn had looked forward all week to the final night party (we kept trying to pick out girls for him) but he was so exhausted in finishing that he passed out in the van. Hey, the girls would have to wait, sometimes a rider just has to sleep, you know?
Several of the stars of that race went on to greater achievements both on and off the bike. Gervais Rioux, Louis Garneau and Dany Delongchamps were all inducted into the Quebec cycling's hall of fame. The Tour winner Louis Garneau went on to ride the 1984 Olympics for Canada, and started the hugely successful clothing and cycling equipment company and brand that carries his name worldwide. Gervais Rioux became a longtime regular on the Canadian national team, opened a shop in Montreal, and later founded the bicycle brand, Argon 18. Closer to home, my pal Vince O'Connell founded the VoMAX clothing company the next year. Constantin Negulescu's teams sponsored by Benotto and later Dutch bike brand Batavus won many, many events on regional and US national scene over the next 3-4 years.
The ride back to the US in Constantin's ailing Ford van (we stopped in New Brunswick for repairs!) appropriately closed out this week of suffering. I'd hoped to go back the following year, and made my 'revenge plans' to come back in more emaciated form, but alas, the Tour de la Gaspesie wasn't run again. It's a pity, for it was a really super race, in a great part of the world. The Gaspesie is a fantastic place to visit, and to ride a bike. Go there, bring compact gearing, but try to pick a July or August when it doesn't rain every day!
I hope someday someone brings back the Tour de la Gaspésie - the ultimate stage racing school.
Only something tells me that 30 years later, the entry fee probably wouldn't be $30.