After a three-year hiatus kept the exhilarating criterium from the cobbled streets of historic downtown Vancouver, the Gastown Grand Prix returns Wednesday. And it’s one race no cyclist should miss, says Garneau Evolution team captain Tim Abercrombie.
“The racing experience is like none other,” said the 33-year-old Vancouver resident and 2011 Tour de White Rock champion. “Whether you’re trying to win or not, you just have to race Gastown because it’s so incredible to be a part of it.”
The criterium (or “crit”) circles a 1.2-kilometre loop along Water, Carrall and Cordova streets. Elite cyclists—120 men and 40 women—round the same compact course as thousands of spectators line the streets to watch and grab tables in nearby bars and restaurants. Crowds can swell to an estimated 30,000 people.
“They’re not a European tradition,” said Abercrombie, and unlike the Gran Fondos or multi-day races like the Tour de France, a crit keeps spectators in mind. “They’re designed in North America. They’re designed to be spectator-friendly courses.”
A special feature known as primes (pronounced “preems”) adds to the excitement. These are races within the race that reward cyclists for specific feats or lap times as the race progresses.
For Abercrombie, this means his athletic triumphs have an audience even if a criterium isn’t his specialty.
“As an amateur in B.C., the experience is like none other. For example, I won the White Rock Road Race last year and it means an incredible amount to me, but there are not many people who I knew who came out to White Rock at 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning to witness that,” he said.
“But everybody I know will be out on Wednesday evening in Gastown, having a few beers and watching the action. It’s important to go and participate and do as well as I can.”
The Grand Prix was cancelled after the summer of 2008 when sponsorship dried up due to the worldwide economic downturn, but that wasn’t the first time the chain came off for the celebrated cycling event. Following the 1993 Grand Prix, which was sponsored in part by Canadian Tire, the race was declared “dead” by the Province newspaper. Nine years later sponsorship came through in 2002 from Steamworks Brewing. The B.C. Cancer Society was another previous sponsor.
Although the event was popular for racers and spectators alike since its creation in 1973, after the 2008 race the neighbourhood’s business improvement association was unable to secure a title promoter.
“They said, despite huge efforts, they couldn’t get any sponsors,” Global Relay CEO Warren Roy told the Courier on Friday. “I said we’d be willing to sponsor it.”
A Vancouver tech firm with multiple international offices and a profile as one of Canada’s fastest-growing companies in the sector, Global Relay committed $1 million over the next five years to relaunch the Gastown Grand Prix.
Roy is optimistic the five-year deal, which includes $40,000 in prize money this summer, will continue into the future. He is enthusiastic about the Grand Prix and its positive spin offs for Gastown, where global Relay keeps its head office.
“For the average person, I think you just have no sense of the energy, the capability of these guys by watching them on television compared to watching them live,” he said.
Global Relay, which was founded in 1999, committed roughly 50 of its 200 Vancouver staff members to staging the event, which has been more than a year in the making. They join 200 volunteers and Mark Ernsting as the race director.
Roy said the experience has been an education in the business of cycling and one of the company’s most rewarding team-building exercises.
Now known as the Global Relay Gastown Grand Prix, the race lands in the middle of B.C. Super Week and includes a hair-pin turn from Water to Cordova Street, technical manoeuvring and the risk of spills on slick cobblestone streets.
Heritage low-rise buildings bordered by leafy trees and a cheering throng of fans create a scene Abercrombie describes as “highly, highly memorable.”
“Coming up Water Street […] it creates this sort of tunnel of excitement and that atmosphere is absolutely amazing. It’s not a course that suits me—I’m not a criterium rider at all—but it’s an incredible experience that I tell everyone if they get the chance and they’re at that level [of competitive cycling] you just have to race Gastown.”
The Global Relay Gastown Grand Prix is free for spectators. The start and finish line is at the intersection of Cambie and Water streets with opening ceremonies beginning July 11 at 5:45 p.m. Women’s staging begins at 6:05 with the gun going off 10 minutes later. Men’s staging begins at 7:20 and the race begins 10 minutes after that.
For more details, visit globalrelayggp.org.