A dog in a hay bale

2 07 2010

I don’t imagine it’s very easy being a bike racer in North America.

The training is hard and arduous. The prize money is paltry, pro contracts usually amount to little more than free or discounted equipment, entry fees and maybe transportation costs. And because many North Americans can’t appreciate the all-day commitment it takes to watch a peloton whiz by in mere seconds at a Grand Tour or Classic race in Europe, many of the races are the two-wheeled equivalent of Nascar, criteriums in which the riders hurtle themselves around and around tight little courses that are fast, crowded and dangerous.

How dangerous?

Just as Katie and I arrived at yesterday’s Yaletown Grand Prix, four riders piled into the hay bales in the corner right where we were standing, two of them flying over their handlebars and into the barriers; they actually had to stop the race for a time to allow an ambulance onto the course to cart the injured riders off to hospital. Fortunately their wounds weren’t serious.

This was the seventh Canada Day a bike race has been held in Yaletown, a former gritty industrial area near downtown Vancouver that has been gentrified into a mix of expensive loft condos, pricey boutiques and high-end restaurants and bars. It used to share the Vancouver bike racing spotlight with the Gastown Grand Prix, which was held in late July as part of the BC Super Week, a busy seven-day stretch of races around the Lower Mainland that regularly attracted top racers from around North America. Even Lance raced in Gastown back in the early 1990s.

But the race became a victim of escalating costs and declining sponsorship a couple of years ago.

That seems to be the fate of too many races in North America. Well-intentioned organizers are quickly overwhelmed by the huge fees for extra policing, traffic management, liability insurance, staging and safety equipment, and all but a hardy few sponsors just can’t wrap their heads around the benefits of aligning themselves with an exciting sport to which almost everyone can relate at some level. And then there are the complaints, from businesses griping about losing their customers because a race course has cut them off from their regulars to residents complaining about being trapped in their homes or unable to leave their driveways while a race is on.

Such a contrast to Europe, where organizers are wined and dined to lure them to bring their race to a town or village, businesses decorate their windows to celebrate the passing of the race, and residents consider it a great honor to have a race pass by their front gardens.

There was a touch of Euro racing in this year’s edition of the Yaletown event; a couple of Canadians, Svein Tuft and Christian Meier, who’ve been racing in Europe for bigtime ProTour team Garmin-Slipstream, found themselves with a little time to kill when they weren’t picked to ride the Tour de France; so they returned home to compete in the Nationals and keep their legs limber by barnstorming various local events.

Svein Tuft was riding so fast at the Yaletown Grand Prix, he almost lapped the field twice.

Tuft is a bit of a legend in these parts. He didn’t start racing until he was in his twenties, after riding up and down the West Coast on a touring bike, pulling his dog in a trailer. He hooked up with a couple of minor North American pro teams, but the regimented lifestyle and meager rewards didn’t mesh well with his independent spirit.

Eventually he wound up with all-Canadian superteam Symmetrics, who lived and trained out of a trailer compound on the team owner’s farm in Langley.

Symmetrics riders like Tuft, Meier, Zach Bell, and Andrew Pinfold won almost every race the team entered; they were a machine.

Tuft’s big breakout came a couple of years ago, when he finished seventh in the Time Trial at the Beijing Olympics and then second in the World Championships.

That fall, the Symmetics cycling team disbanded, out of sponsorship money. Tuft and Meier joined another Canadian, Ryder Hesjedal, at Garmin.

At Yaletown yesterday, he showed just how much more he had developed after a couple of seasons in the rigorous world of Euro racing, as he easily lapped a field of top Northwest riders, then almost lapped them again, much to the delight of the fixie hipsters who lined the loading docks and perched upon the dumpsters.