Friday, January 6, 2012

Les Mardis Cyclistes; Where does the Magic Come From?

Tino Rossi           Photo © Pasquale Stalteri Photography / All Rights Reserved
 Les Mardis Cyclistes; 
Where does the Magic Come From? 
by Pasquale Stalteri & John Symon

Lachine seems to be a tiny oasis where road cycling is properly recognized in a country where the sport is otherwise almost forgotten. Here big crowds have turned out for 34 years to cheer as a field of up to 140 of the top senior men cyclists in Quebec, Canada, and even internationally race at speeds of up to 70kmh around LaSalle Park. In recent years, women’s races and cadet races have been also added to the menu. But how did all this come to be? And where does the magic come from?

“The first Mardis de Lachine happened in 1978,” recounts Mardis founder, Joseph ‘Tino’ Rossi when we met with him for lunch at his favourite restaurant on Lachine’s lakefront. “I lived on Ile Bizard then and didn’t know Lachine well. I was riding with seven friends from the Lachine cycling club on our way over to Momesso’s Café. Along the way, we got lost and just discovered LaSalle Park by accident. It looked like the perfect spot for a crit race. None of us had an odometer of our bikes then, so we asked somebody with a car to drive around the park and tell us what the distance was. He did this and told us that the distance was exactly one mile; it was perfect!”

Miroir du Cyclisme (MdC) tried to find out more about that fateful day by completing Rossi’s journey; ending up at Momesso’s on Upper Lachine Rd in NDG where submarine sandwiches and espressos are the house specialty. We drank coffee there with owner, Paul Momesso (brother of former Canadiens player, Sergio) who was one of the seven riders with the Lachine cycling club that day. He remembers being equally impressed then with how LaSalle Park seemed perfect for bike races.

Momesso’s version of events is that the Lachine club previously raced on Ile Perrot, but was chased off that island after a dispute with the mayor there. So there might have been an added impetus to find an alternate place to race.

Rossi recounts going back to LaSalle Park for the first race there and using chalk to etch the start/finish line on the asphalt. There were fewer than 10 cyclists on the start line at that first evening race in 1978. Afterwards, a few complaints were received by the Lachine mayor Guy Descary about cyclists disrupting traffic, but Descary ended up by calling his Public Works director and telling him to give all available assistance to Rossi and the Mardis races.

Momesso raced the Mardis cyclists in 1978 and 1979, finishing third one evening. “I positioned myself to be first, but two guys came out of nowhere and out-sprinted me to the finish,” he recounts. Already, the Mardis series were developing a following among Quebec’s road cycling aficionados. But who were those two guys strong enough to come out of nowhere and take the two top spots on the podium?

The winner of the 1978 Mardis season was Roger Chartrand who was also Quebec’s road champ that same year. MdC contacted Chartrand, now living in the BC Rockies, for his version of cycling in those early days.

“Rossi was a pioneer and a visionary,” asserts Chartrand. “He made a show, drew in spectators, brought in a sound system and played disco music, had beautiful hostesses presenting the awards, spoke to the crowd, found sponsors, and made it happen,” as Chartrand puts it. While most bike events from the 1970s only lasted a few years and then disappeared, the Mardis Cyclistes series is still going strong today.”

Chartrand was perhaps more commonly known by his nickname, ‘le cascadeur’ (the stuntman) because, “Spectators were guaranteed that I would either win or crash,” as he puts it. In one legendary race, five other riders deliberately boxed Chartrand in during the final sprint. But he bunny-hopped his bike onto the sidewalk and made spectators scatter, passing the five cyclists and going on to victory. Among Chartrand’s other stunts was doing warm-up rides around the park against the direction that all other riders were going. He also recounts doing these exploits on a $100 ‘clunker’ bike.

Rossi insisted that Chartrand join the start line each week because ‘le cascadeur’ was the magnet who drew the crowds. Rossi obviously had a sense of ‘show business’ and knew what spectators wanted to see. “Back then, winning a Mardis race only brought me $25 and I won another $400 for the season,” relates Chartrand who worked winters as a ski instructor and otherwise took summers off. Apart from the financial compensation, Chartrand appreciated the notoriety that his exploits generated. “People came up to me on the street to shake hands with me. My fame also made it easy to find chicks.”

Chartrand describes cycling in the 1970s as ‘an obscure sport’ and regrets that his father never turned out to watch any of the Mardis races. Chartrand also lavishes great praise on Rossi who was able to raise the profile of cycling “almost immediately” after becoming involved.

While cycling was then an obscure sport in Canada, there were some big names coming into town to race around LaSalle Park. Some Quebec cyclists refer to this period as a ‘magical time’ in the history of the Mardis. Chartrand recounts racing against Louis Garneau, Pierre Harvey and Claude Langlois. But he also remembers a certain amount of solidarity between Quebec riders and how they raced together against Ontario cyclists such as Steve Bauer, Jocelyn Lovell, Gord Singleton, and Alex Stieda.

“Bauer made us suffer when he would ride at Mardis races, coming in like a locomotive,” said Chartrand. “One time Bauer passed the pack and only about 20 other cyclists were able to finish with him. Lovell also provided fierce competition, but the Quebec riders tended to gang up against him.”

Some MdC readers might not fully appreciate who these riders were, so here are a few quick details:

·         Steve Bauer (7-Eleven Cycling Team) raced the Tour de France (TdF)  nine times, finishing fourth overall in 1988. Bauer also won silver at the 1984 Barcelona Olympics. He is considered Canada’s most distinguished road cyclist of all time
·         Jocelyn Lovell dominated the Canadian cycling scene in the 1960s and 70s, winning national titles, Commonwealth Games and Pan-Am Games before a tragic accident left him in a wheelchair.
·         Gord Singleton became the first Canadian to win a World Championship (1982) and once simultaneously held world records in the 200 metres, 500 metres and 1000 metre events.
·         Alex Stieda (7-Eleven) in 1986 became the first North American to wear the TdF’s yellow jersey; this was five years before Lance Armstrong started riding pro.

Louis Garneau and Pierre Harvey are probably better known to MdC readers and both went on to become Olympic cyclists while Harvey also became an Olympic Nordic skier. His son, Alex Harvey, is currently the top-ranked Nordic skier worldwide. Langlois won gold at the 1979 Pan-American Games and was selected for the Canadian team for the 1980 Olympics.

Not only the names, but also the exploits from those early days remain legendary. Danny Deslongchamps, the 1980 and 1981 series winner, is probably most vividly remembered for one evening in Lachine where he lapped the pack and also won the bunch sprint!

“The races on Tuesday nights in Lachine were always fun,” Stieda wrote to us from Edmonton. “Whenever we traveled to Montreal for larger races from Western Canada, it was a treat to take part in these crits…it gave us a way of measuring to see where our strength and skill was at any given time of the year against the Eastern boys.”

Foreign riders also come in for guest appearances and Rossi claims that an unknown Australian named Cadel Evans raced one stage in about 2001. That Australian, of course, went on to win the 2011 TdF while riding for BMC.

And in June 2009, 10,000 spectators turned out to watch Floyd Landis (riding with OUCH) finish in the middle of the pack. Landis (then with PHONAK) finished first at the 2006 TdF only to be disqualified by a positive doping test. Rossi was criticized by many for ‘inviting a convicted doper’ to the Mardis races, but points out that Landis’ infraction occurred in 2006 and he served a two-year suspension that ended in 2008. Rossi defends the Landis invite, comparing it to giving a job to an ex-convict who has served his time and repaid his debt to society.

In 2011 the New Zealand junior team made a stop on its way to the Tour de l'Abitibi. Kiwi rider, Dion Smith (Pure Black) rode against the senior men to claim second place behind David Veilleux (Europcar) that evening. Smith, fresh from a fourth place finish at the Iron Hill crit in Pennsylvania, admitted that his legs were pretty stiff after the Mardis. That same season, Austria’s Andreas Müller (Berliner TSC), a top track cyclist with 17 national titles, came in to finish sixth on June 21. Müller told us that he was very impressed with the high level of competition in Lachine.

In recent years, Columbian and Dutch teams have competed around LaSalle Park. Apparently, the 2010 Giro winner, Italian cyclist Ivan Basso (Liquigas) follows webcams of the Mardis series. Is there another crit series in North America that comes close to such international prominence?

All top male Quebec professional road riders have used the Mardis as their launching pad. This list includes David Veilleux (Europcar), Dominique Rollin (Française des Jeux), Martin Gilbert (SpiderTech p/b C10), and Guillaume Boivin (SpiderTech). Racing around LaSalle Park was a prelude to international prominence for these cyclists. Veilleux is the current Canadian crit champ and tells us that the Mardis races were a great place to practice. Even top Quebec women cyclists, like Joëlle Numainville (Webcor in 2011), can often be found among the spectators.

Others, like current Mardis champion, Jean-François Laroche (Fantino Mondello), have remained amateurs and concentrated on the Lachine series. For him, Mardis is not so much a launching pad but rather a final destination.

And it is not only Quebec riders who have used the Mardis as a springboard toward greater things. Steve Bauer first came to national prominence in 1978, winning the national crit title that year in a race won around LaSalle Park. Back in those early days, Bauer was just sponsored by a Hamilton bike shop. Bauer keeps coming back to LaSalle Park, racing the Mardis as recently as 2005, finishing sixth (an impressive result at age 46 and without a team). He has since found a team, SpiderTech, but now has taken on the role of team owner and often watches the Mardis series from the sidelines.

In more recent years, other notable Canadian and foreign riders have raced at the Mardis. In June 2007, the Canadian crit champ of the day, Cam Evans (formerly with Symmetrics) flew in from Vancouver to take a stage win. He told us then that he felt honoured to compete in Canada’s most prominent crit series.

Many point to Tino Rossi as the reason for the crit series’ success. When we asked Rossi about this, he modestly claimed instead that it is the site:

“Where else in North America can you find such a spot for crit races?” he asks. “Not only is the distance exactly one mile, with four 90-degree corners, but Lachine has now resurfaced the asphalt, banked those corners, and moved the manhole covers out of the way.”

Rossi gives great credit to his technical director, Marc-Wayne Addison, for taking care of many important details that allow the races to run smoothly. Rossi, who turns 72 this year, now concentrates on specific aspects of the Mardis races. These include such things as talking to sponsors, relations with local governments, and shouting into a microphone on the Mardis start line asking cyclists, “Are you ready to rumble?”

While the Mardis series has benefited greatly from support provided by the Montreal borough of Lachine, Lachine has also benefited from holding the Mardis races. To promote the Mardis series, Rossi and Lachine applied in the 1970s for funding to former Participaction program, a Canadian government initiative to promote healthy living and physical fitness.  That funding was used to hire some of the first staff members of Lachine’s recreation department.

"Today there are 70 employees working for Lachine's recreation department," says current Lachine Mayor, Claude Dauphin. "These employees provide such services as support to sports and cultural organisations in the fields of administration, financing and equipment. They also work hand-in-hand with our Public Works department when it comes to setting up for events, as it is the case with the Mardis Cyclistes. We are proud to be long-time associates with Tino Rossi and his fine organisation."

Is there something magical about LaSalle Park? Rossi is among those who believe so, pointing out that the same site was used for bike races in the 1930s, before Rossi was even born. He mentions brothers Pierre and Albert Gachon as among those who raced around LaSalle Park then. Pierre Gachon became, in 1937, the first North American to compete in the TdF. Both Gachon brothers--since deceased—have been inducted into the FQSC Hall of Fame. A local road club that gained prominence back then was, “les Rapides de Lachine,” a name appropriated today by a local triathlon club.

MdC asked Rossi what his plans are for the series. “I don’t want an international (UCI) sanction because that will swallow my budget,” he confided. Instead Rossi wants to do more of the same, only better. “This year there will be a record prize offered of $50,000 for anyone breaking the course speed record*; I’m negotiating that with Lloyd’s of London.”

As revealed earlier, Rossi has also just picked up a new title sponsor, the Jean Coutu Pharmacy Group (PJC). In late 2011, the Mardis series lost its former title sponsor, Saputo, but Rossi remained optimistic that a replacement would be found. That optimism has obviously paid off.

We suggested to Rossi that the Mardis’ prominence in Quebec road cycling circles might only be rivalled by the UCI WorldTour Grand Prix races in Quebec City and Montreal. Rossi retorted that there was no comparison between the Mardis and the WorldTour GPs, which appeal to a much higher calibre of rider. But then he reflected and noted that, “While it is good to aim higher, it is better just to have stability.” And, with Rossi in charge, the 35-year-old MCL series certainly represents stability.

* = the Mardis speed record was established in 2009 by Guillaume Boivin (then with VW) when he won the 50km crit in a time of 58 minutes 52 seconds 

* = the Mardis speed record was established in 2009 by Guillaume Boivin (then with VW) when he won the 50km crit in a time of 58 minutes 52 seconds 


this is such a cool thing that the history of the sport is being preserved through these online many people back then helped make the sport what it is today.

Thanks for the comment, Alex. And thanks with your quote that helped make the article what it is.

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