This past week saw junior cyclists from all over the world compete at the 7-stage Tour L’Abitibi in Quebec. This race is the only North American Stage race for Junior Cyclists on the UCI Junior World Tour. The calibre of athletes attending is always high and this year was no exception. With national teams from countries including USA, France, Denmark, Japan, New Zealand, Morocco and of course Canada riding alongside other teams from all over Canada and USA – this race is a key race of the year for junior cyclists around the world. In total there were 150 riders from 25 teams at the start line on July 19 ready to take on Stage 1. The seven stage event is mainly over flat and rolling terrain so there is little in the way of obstacles other than the sheer speed of the peloton. Most stages came down to a sprint finish amongst the peloton that survived the daily race. Bonus seconds were up for grabs as well for the first three riders across the finish line. Only stage three was a time trial. The overall winner was the rider with the lowest cumulative time after a week of racing.
Three athletes from the local Centurion Next Wave (CNW) Cycling Team (Matt Staples, Graydon Staples and Noah Simms) were selected to ride for Team Canada at the event in preparation for World Championships in Qatar later this year. This allowed Centurion Next Wave to invite two guest riders to complete its six-man roster taking on Garret Belanger and Quinton Disera to join CNW cyclists Gunnar Holmgren, Gavin Kerr, Cole Schumacher and Jake Allaire.
Our athletes kicked things into high gear when Quinton Disera won the Sprint Challenge the evening before the first stage. The sprint showdown was brief and entertaining for the crowds but it certainly drew attention to the little team from Barrie-Orillia. The following stages saw both the difficulty and thrill of stage races. Holmgren would crash in the first stage and with a broken bike would not regain contact with the peloton, conceding a huge chunk of time and ending his bid for the overall title. Graydon Staples crashed in a training session before the stage 3 time trial and fractured his elbows forcing him to abandon the race. Despite that both Team Canada and CNW riders figured prominently in breakaway attempts and strong sprint finishes with most riders finishing in the surviving front pack. Noah Simms’ strong sprints in Stage 1 and 2 earned him the blue jersey given to the race’s best placed young rider. The stage 3 time trial further separated the riders in the overall standing with Matt Staples placing 19th in the event and Holmgren redeeming his stage 1 misfortune with a 23rd place.
While the weather held for the first half of the week, stage four saw things change for the worse with a huge deluge throughout the race. Incredibly there were no major crashes although Allaire ended up in a ditch and struggled with mechanical problems. The race would prove to be a race of attrition with numerous riders popping off the back of the peloton. Both Team Canada and CNW continued to do well with Matt Staples sitting in 14th overall after the rainy stage and Quinton Disera in 41st overall. Team Canada was third in the team classification and CNW sat in 9th place. Last year’s Abitibi runner-up Brandon McNulty from Team USA sat at the top of the overall leader board.
Stage 5 was marred by a huge crash of 60 riders which saw both Cole Schumacher and Gavin Kerr involved. Both would remount and chase the peloton but spend considerable energy doing so. Jake Allaire unfortunately had to withdraw after suffering an asthma attack. Fortunes changed on stage 6 however. Both Matt Staples and Quinton Disera initiated a breakaway move early in the stage. This caught the top teams, including Team USA, unaware and off guard. The peloton would never catch the breakaway group of riders. To add to the excitement, Quinton Disera would sprint for the stage win and Staples would move himself up to 4th place overall only 4 seconds off the podium. Staples’ Team Canada teammate Nick Zukowsky would claim the leader’s jersey. Team Canada suddenly found itself at the top of the team standings, much to the pleasure of the local crowds. CNW’s Disera was not far behind in the overall standings, 6th place to be exact, as the final stage 7 approached. The only downside of the day was the withdrawal of Gunnar Holmgren from the race with knee pain.
Unfortunately the final stage would undo many of the gains made the day before. Team USA wasted no time propelling its main rider McNulty off the front with three other very strong riders. They would put a large time gap between themselves and the peloton as they started the final circuits in Rouyn-Noranda. Team Canada chased hard but McNulty would reclaim the leader’s jersey and win the overall race. It emphasized the harsh realities of stage racing. Staples would fall down the overall standings. Disera put in a huge effort, leading the peloton across the line in 10th place, 2 minutes and 17 seconds behind the race leader. In the end he would claim a solid 9th place overall. Simms took 27th overall, Belanger 36th, Matt Staples 82nd, Cole Schumacher 93rd. Forty-four riders who started stage 1, did not complete the race.
The 47th edition of the Tour l’Abitibi provided a lot of drama over the seven days of racing. Each rider will go home with a wealth of knowledge as they prepare for their next goals in the world of cycling. Probably the best lesson learned was that the athletes from this area on Team Canada and Centurion Next Wave are amongst the best in the world and will continue to develop as an incredible group of cyclists. Coach Kevin Simms summed it up well: “We had arrived at the race with few people on the planet knowing who we were and what we were capable of. We are now known as the team who put three athletes on the National Team and still remained competitive…We also took some top 10 finishes, a stage win, sprint points and of course the opening sprint challenge. All in all we have made our mark and met our goals.”
The three athletes on Team Canada head to Belgium this week for a month of European races in anticipation of the World Championships in October.