When North America’s best men and women racers make their way to the intersection of Cambie and Water streets for the start of the Global Relay Gastown Grand Prix presented by Allstream on July 11th, waiting for them will be a challenging 1.2-km course featuring a hairpin turn at one end, the Gassy Jack statue and flatiron Hotel Europe at the other end, and thousands of bricks and cobblestones in between.
For each rider, this famous North American criterium course is the only version of the race they’ve ever known. Fact is, this latest version is just one of five that have been used over the years and if they’d lined up in the same spot for the first edition back in 1973, they’d have missed the race because that part of Gastown wasn’t part of the course.
Created by race founder Roger Sumner and used from 1973 to 1984, the first version of the Gastown Grand Prix covered just two city blocks bordered by Water, Abbott, Cordova and Columbia streets.
Held during the BC Day long weekend in early August, the four-turn, 900-metre race saw some epic battles in its record 12-year run. It started with the legendary backstretch tussle between breakaway “companions” Max Grace and Bill Wild in 1973 and finished with Alex Stieda getting his second win in 1984 over Brent Mudry and Bruce Spicer. Preceding Stieda’s second win was three straight victories by his 7-Eleven teammate Ron Hayman from 1981-1983, still a Gastown men’s record.
In 1985, the Gastown Grand Prix got bigger in several ways. Throughout the 1980s, 7-Eleven was the biggest name in North American cycling with stars like Eric Heiden, Davis Phinney, Ron Keifel and Rebecca Twigg. With local boys Ron Hayman and Alex Stieda winning four straight Gastown victories for 7-Eleven, the team and parent company knew all about the race and in 1985 added it to its prestigious 7-Eleven Cup series, alongside top races like the Coors Classic and the Texas Cup. This attracted more top riders eager to gain series points and an invitation to the series finale around the 7-Eleven headquarters in Dallas.
To accommodate the series schedule, the race was moved to the Canada Day long weekend. The prize money increased and so did the length of the course to 1.3 km, with riders now continuing west on Water Street an additional block before turning left at the steam clock and left again at Cordova. The winner in 1985? You guessed it: another 7-Eleven rider, Chris Carmichael.
After three years (1985-1987) of that course, for 1988 to 1992, the race switched to a seven-turn configuration that former co-organizer Simon Holwill calls the “made-for-tv” course. This new course saw riders turning left onto Carrall, right onto Powell and around the Hotel Europe block for a 1.3-km course.
“We had increasingly got involved in televising the event,” says Holwill. “We put the camera on a boom in front of the Hotel Europe so it got riders coming into the square from the south and then going back west along Water in a series of tracking shots. Scissor lifts were set up in various locations, especially at Steam Clock Corner, where we had stationary cameras with long lenses shooting the riders coming straight on. We also had a number of mobile cameras around the course, which gave us those great slo-mo shots showing the riders’ skin rippling up their arms and faces as they bounced over the cobbles. Adding to that, we had speakers all around the course and riders used to say they felt like they were riding into a canyon of noise as we pounded out Wagner’s Ride of Valkyries on the finishing laps.”
In 1993, the Gastown Grand Prix went backwards, literally. For one year only, the race ran in the opposite direction with the westernmost street changing from Cambie back down to Abbott Street. According to the race’s other co-organizer, Barry Lycett, the course change was because Sunday shopping had just came in and stores did not want the Water Street parkade to be off limits for shoppers. That meant that the circuit had to turn on Abbott Street. The direction of the course was changed to give riders, officials and spectators a clearer look at the finish line in front of the Old Spaghetti Factory.
After 1993, the race then experienced an eight year hiatus due to sponsorship issues brought on by the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria. When it returned in 2002, organizers extended the west end of the course one block to the Cambie/Cordova hairpin turn to bring it closer to Steamworks Brewing Company, the title sponsor for that year. To maintain the ideal course distance, the eastern end was also moved one block west to Gastown’s Maple Tree Square, Vancouver’s birthplace, providing a historic landmark for the race. In 2012, the 29th edition of the race will see riders using this current 1.2-km layout for the eighth time.
While the course may have changed a few times over the years, it’s most important traditions remain:
- riders will be racing over the same bricks and cobblestones that Lance Armstrong and three-time winners Ron Hayman, Verna Buhler and Gina Grain flew over when they won their races;
- they’ll be racing for big money, with a huge prize purse and thousands more in primes;
- and with twenty to thirty thousand spectators expected, Gastown’s deafening canyon of noise will once again drown out every thought the riders have but one: doing whatever it takes to win the Gastown Grand Prix.