Where

It All Began

Canada’s Oldest One-day Cycling Classic

History of the Gastown GrandPrix– By Anita Cancian

The Gastown Grand Prix (GGP) is a prestigious Canadian Pro 1/2 criterium race with a long and rich history. Many great names in North American cycling have raced in this important event over the years, spurring the Gastown Grand Prix on to becoming one of the most popular one-day bike races in North America. Cycling greats like Ron Hayman, Alex Steida and Alison Sydor have thrilled GGP audiences over the years with their displays of racing brilliance.

The Idea

Dr. Roger Sumner came up with the idea in 1973 to have a bike race in the popular Gastown area of Vancouver, BC. Sumner, a Vancouver native and bike racer, wanted to organize a race that would show the public how spectacular top level bike racing in Canada could be. He wanted to create a quality race that would be highly accessible to the public. Gastown, with its historic character-filled, twisty cobblestoned streets lined with cafes and restaurants, fit the bill as the perfect place to have a criterium style race. Sumner himself competed in the Gastown Grand Prix until 1978. He was later inducted into the BC Hall of Fame for his 30 years of service to the sport in the roles of racer, coach, manager and racing organizer. (Tragically, he died in 2000 after being hit by a car while riding his bike).

 

The First Race

The first GGP was held in 1973. The racing around the tight course proved to be electrifying from the beginning. The race ended in dramatic fashion with Bill Wild, one of the finest sprinters of the time, trading punches with transported Kiwi and three time Canadian National Road Champion Max Grace while battling it out in the final sprint. Wild won the race and took home first prize, which was a colour TV.

The Early Years

The 1970’s GGP races were contested by the finest bicycle racers in Canada. These races were won by many Canadian cycling champions like National Road Champion Brian Keast, Bill Wild, who placed second in National Track Championships in 1971, George Streadwick and Dave Watkins. By 1976, 122 elite cyclists from Canada and even Mexico were signed up to race the GGP. In 1977, racers from the US made their first appearance at the criterium by entering 25 riders in the race. One of these riders was 18 year old Davis Phinney. Phinney later went on to become an Olympic medalist and winner of two stages of the Tour de France. In 1979, Canadian cyclist Alex Steida made his first appearance at the race as National Junior Track Champion. Unfortunately, Steida hit a pedestrian during the race. There were no serious injuries but he did manage to demolish his bike. In 1980 Stieda, still a junior, would take his first victory in Gastown in front of crowds that now numbered in the 20,000’s. This was the start of great things for Steida as he later became the first North American to earn the Yellow Jersey at the Tour de Frances.

Emergence of the Pro Teams

The 1980’s saw the emergence of the first Professional racing category racers attend the GGP. Canadian Pro racer Ron Hayman, of Vancouver, won three titles at the GGP. Hayman was one of only three Canadian Pros on the world circuit at this time. In 1982 he won again, beating out Steida who came second and Canadian National Team member Bernie Willock who placed third. Eric Heiden, the five time American gold medalist in speed skating, only managed fourth place in this exceptional field. In the 1980s, women cyclists began to establish themselves in the GGP with the emergence of a Womens category. 1981 National Road Champion Verna Buhler of Canada won the first womans title in 1982. She would go on to win two more titles in next two years.

The powerhouse Pro team of 7-11 dominated GGP races in the mid to late 80’s with many podium results. Begun in 1981 as an amateur team, 7-11 become a Pro team in 1985. It became one of the major cycling teams of the next decade, racing at many Grand Tours of Europe. First place results were taken at the GGP during the 80’s by team members Brian Walton, Alex Steida and Norm Alvis.

The 90’s: Youth vs. Experience

The 1990’s saw some young and relatively inexperienced riders winning the GGP over older and more established racers. Many younger riders saw the GGP as a great opportunity to compete against more seasoned professional racers, with some of them producing breakthrough results. One of these was twenty year old John Mckinley, who won the race in 1992. A young 19 year old US racer named Jonas Carney also won the event in 1990.

Many times a medalist at Olympic and World mountain bike events, Canadian Alison Sydor also rode her first GGP in 1991 and won the womens race. Sydor would go on to race in many other future GGP events. In 1993, the Pro team of Coors Light dominated the GGP. Sprint specialist Roberto Gaggiolli won with Swedish World Road champion Marianne Berglund victorious in the womens race. Clara Hughes, Leslie Tomlinson and Sara Neil are notable Canadian women racers who also had outstanding races in the GGP in the early 1990’s.

The GGP took a nine year hiatus in 1994 after not being able to secure sponsorship.

 

Big Name Riders Draw Crowds

The event returned true to form again in 2002 attracting 28,000 people to the streets of Gastown. With $10,000 up for prize money, Mark McCormack of the Saturn Pro team won with help from fellow teammate Canadian Olympian Svein Tuft. The Saturn Team was one of the top three Pro US teams at this time and its racers dominated the race. Kim Davidje, also riding for Saturn, won the womens race. In 2003, Germany’s Ina Teutenberg, one of the premier woman sprinters in the world at this time, held off Alison Sydor to win the race. Thirty five year old Gord Fraser was victorious in the mens event coming first out of 137 other riders.

US track team member for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Jonas Carney of US came back to the GGP in 2004 and won the race for a second time. He first won the GP fourteen years earlier in 1990 as a 19 year old. Manon Jutras, 1994 Canadian Olympic road team member was victorious in the womans event.

Other highlights of the mid-2000’s include the appearance of the UCI Continental Symmetrics cycling team at the GGP. The team was wholly comprised of massively talented Canadian riders like Svein Tuft, Andrew Pinfold and Eric Wohlberg. By 2006, the GGP was attracting 40,000 spectators and was offering $15,000 in prize money. Gord Fraser was a double GGP winner with victories in 2003 and 2005. Also in 2005, Gina Grain burst onto the scene and won the first of three career victories at the GGP. Her other first place wins were to come in 2006 and 2008. Grain used the 2008 race as preparation for the Beijing Olympics, which were going to be held two weeks after the Gastown race. Many other riders also used the GGP as final preparation for the Olympics. Sprinter Andrew Pinfold of the Symmetrics team, with the help of his Olympic bound teammate Svein Tuft and seven other teammates, won the 50 lap mens race in dramatic fashion by only a bike length.

The Legendary Race Returns

In 2009, the race again took another hiatus as it was without sponsorship until 2012, when Global Relay, a Gastown-based technology firm, made a multi-year commitment to bring the race back to Vancouver once again for the 2012 cycling season and beyond.

On July 11, 2012, thousands of cheering spectators lined the route as a competitive women’s field started off the racing. The peloton proved to be evenly matched and after the riders had circled the course 30 times no one was able to sustain a breakaway. The race ended in a dramatic sprint with 24 year old Australian Loren Rowney of Specialized Lululemon winning the race by a mere bike length. Accomplished US racer Loren Van Gilder took second place and three time BC Superweek winner Nicky Wangsgard won third.

The men then took to the streets with UCI World Team Time Trial bronze medalist Svein Tuft breaking from the pack and leading the race down to the last lap. This resulted in a dynamic set up for the finish, when Tuft was caught by the peloton and passed on the homestretch just before the finish line. The race ended in a bunch sprint that saw Ken Hanson of Optum Pro Cycling winning the race, with Tommy Nankervis of Australia taking second place and Vancouver’s Ryan Anderson coming in third.

Special thanks to Anita Cancian for preparing this article.
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