The speed was enough to blow your hair back.
For 50 laps in the men’s race, 30 in the women’s, the streamlined pack of cyclists flew out of hairpin turns and gained speed on the straight stretches, displacing the air and blowing a hot gust onto the crowd. The wind blew back hair. Lifted skirts, too.
The Gastown Grand Prix returned to the neighbourhood Wednesday thanks to a $1 million investment from Global Relay, a Vancouver tech firm headquartered at 220 Cambie St., a brick building at the corner of the checkered start and finish line on Water Street.
Loren Rowney, an Australian racing for the Specialized Lululemon team, won the women’s criterium in 53 minutes, 25.13 seconds. She got the sprint finish she wanted and barely edged her competition.
With a $15,000 first place prize for men and $8,000 for women, the Global Relay Grand Prix claims to put up the biggest cash prize on the continent for criterium racing.
The men’s crit also came down to the wire. Optum Kelly Benefit Strategies team rider Ken Hanson surged on the final stretch of the 1.2-kilometre, 50-lap course to win in 1:16.86.
“It’s fantastic, this makes it extra special, the support of the crowd in these historic places, it adds a lot of prestige to the race,” Hanson declared over the P.A. system in an interview with race announcers. He raced in the last Grand Prix in 2008 and said he wouldn’t have missed this year’s event, which joined the nine-race B.C. Superweek, adding $40,000 in prize money to a $105,000 purse.
“This is fantastic. The crowds are great, the course is really good and I want to come back to this race every year. The big crowd just adds to the energy and excitement of the race. I think everybody races better and you just get extra motivation. It makes it a lot more enjoyable for us.”
Event organizers optimistically estimated crowds of 35,000 but far fewer spectators lined the streets of Gastown to witness the race’s anticipated return. A more realistic count puts the Wednesday evening crowd around 5,000. Spectators watched from bars and office windows, apartment balconies, rooftops and from a seven-story parkade.
Loud cheers and clanging bells rang for the return of Grand Prix and the neighbourhood Steam Clock added melody on its own time.
The criterium course is a North American creation, a technically challenging race designed to entertain spectators in an urban setting. A spill in the early stage of the men’s crit took down at least five riders, according to witness accounts.
“We had a bird’s eye view of the crash as it happened. It was after an uphill, hairpin corner, so there wasn’t a whole lot of speed,” said Ian Jamieson who watched from the 17th floor of Woodward’s.
“But like a lot of crashes in major races, like in the tours, it always happens in an early stage because there are a lot of people who are really close together. The tensions are high, they’re still settling into the groove.”
Before the cyclists had made five laps of the track, Mark McConnell with Synergy Racing lost his balance and bailed. Thirty-five out of 120 registered racers didn’t finish.
Chris Luk snapped a picture of the crash. “I guess he lost his footing,” he said.
Jamieson said the spill happened on the right of the course and a second followed as racers tried to avoid the clutter.
“It was a pretty intense obstacle course for everyone else. I think there were probably eight guys who went down.”
The chance for chaos adds to the entertainment value of this spectator sport and it can mean a competitor’s anger at being injured or eliminated is seen up close, as was the case Wednesday. The elite athletes, many of them professional riders from Canada, Australia and the U.S., propel themselves at speeds up to 60 km/h and take enormous risks, albeit calculated and skilled ones, to win.
“Just look at the crowds at the hairpin turns,” said Jamieson, noting cycling’s dangers offer entertainment value. “You’re excited that you got to see the crash but then you feel bad again for everyone who crashed.”
“He was in quite a bit of pain when he first went down,” Ron Shandroski said of one racer he saw in the early crash. “The nice thing that I noticed was that one of his friends came back, one of his teammates came back and put his chain on for him. He was watching him suffer for a while and then they both got back on their bikes and rode away.”
Shandroski, a volunteer who managed pedestrian crossings on the criterium course, likened the thrill of the Grand Prix to the Indy Vancouver that once burned rubber in Vancouver.
“It’s amazing they can have that much gas. It’s hard to tell [the cyclists’ speed] when you’re standing still. It’s just like when the Indy was here, you could never watch a car go by unless you moved your head along really fast.”
Hold still and it’ll blow your hair back.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @MHStewart