I’ve never met a dislikable Canadian. They must exist. I just haven’t encountered them yet.
My reading matter for the trip to Quebec, A Handmaid’s Tale, was written by a Canuck – Margaret Atwood. Set in a dystopian future America ruled by religious fundamentalists treating women as reproductive sex slaves, Canada represents freedom and democracy, the “magical land of the north” welcoming refugees fleeing the totalitarian regime to the south. The Canadians in Atwood’s novel are – surprise, surprise – thoroughly decent people. But I left the book under my plane seat on the return, so have no idea how the story ends. No spoilers, please.
Quebec City feels about as far removed from a dystopian post-Trump American nightmare as could be. Quaint doesn’t cover it. Pavements are scrubbed and cleaned to perfection: no gum stains, no litter. The historic old town on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River nestles inside the remarkably well-preserved city walls that include La Citadelle – the imposing fortress that protected its inhabitants, with mixed results.
A brief history lesson on Quebec. The settlement was founded by the French in the 16th Century, then briefly changed hands to the English in 1629 before returning to French ownership three years later. The British, always fond of a fight in far off lands, especially against the French, returned over a century later and reclaimed the province. The Americans then gave it a good go in 1775 but were roundly defeated, so Quebec was spared becoming part of the original United States of America.
Canada remains part of the Commonwealth, however, so although links with Britain are not obvious in everyday life, the Queen’s head on their banknotes is a salutary reminder of times past. We are in part of a country over 3,000 miles away from our tiny island that does not speak English, but recognises Queen Elizabeth II as its reigning monarch. Which is odd, whichever way you look at it.
But I digress. We are here for a pair of bike races: the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec, followed by the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal, two WorldTour races in a far-off land that have run since 2010 due to one man’s vision.
Serge Arsenault is a force of nature; a human whirlwind of ideas and bluster who does not take no for an answer. Never before have I sat down with an interviewee, asked one question, and they are still talking an hour later. There is never a dull moment with Arsenault.
And the fact that we are talking in the very hotel suite where Churchill and Roosevelt discussed plans for the D-Day landings gives an extra frisson that raises hairs on the back of my neck. Arsenault points out the deep scratches on the room’s floorboards, caused by dragging the two world leaders’ ample luggage to their rooms, left intact by Château Frontenac’s owners for posterity.
“Cycling is a series of accidents. I did not go to cycling; cycling came to me,” says Arsenault of his circuitous route into the sport. As a political commentator on Canadian TV, his first dip into organising sport events came with the 1977 Quebec marathon – not exactly a roaring success. Only 36 runners took to the start…
“Then I met the big companies. How many people do you think you can put on the line? I said ten thousand. Quebec was like Cuba. We are isolated because of language. We are proud. I said I have to give our six million people a goal.
“I put the best trainers into the villages and towns and trained them for a year. In ‘79, we had 10,656 people [at the start] on the bridge.
“I was annoyed by the white supremacy in marathon running at the time. I wanted a real international field. I went to Kenya, Ethiopia, Swaziland, Tanzania – I had to avoid South Africa at the time because of political reasons. We also invited the USSR, Japanese – a tremendous field. We were the first to invite African runners.
“Runners World were telling me that the white runners would not come if I invited the Africans,” Arsenault adds, as a salutary reminder of different times. He also proposed what would have been the first wheelchair marathon, but was overruled. Their loss.
Cycling came to the political commentator via the 1974 World Championships in Montreal. Arsenault was thrown in at the deep end when the usual TV pundit suffered an accident just hours before the road race.
“They called me. I said I know nothing about the sport! But cycling had parallel suffering with the marathon, with the limits of what you can do. I have a passion for this kind of thing.”
Arsenault’s other passion: rosé wine, another strand to his TV presenting career. “The wine world was geographically next to cycling. I started to fall in love with that sport too,” he says.
The then-UCI president Hein Verbruggen turned to the Québécois in his efforts to increase global appeal for cycle sport, leading to the Grand Prix des Amériques – a one-day World Cup that ran between 1988 and 1992.
Arsenault used the same approach he applies to the current races in Quebec and Montreal: charter flights to bring the teams from Europe, the best hotels available in the host cities, excellent food. It proved to be a winning formula.
“Many people in Europe were offended by what I was doing here – organisers, not riders. The hotel, the chefs, the plane. The riders were going back to Europe and asking: how come we are treated like shit over here?”
Much backstage wrangling and political shenanigans came in the following years, until the bull-headed Arsenault eventually brokered a deal with the UCI that gave him the two current WorldTour races.
Not that he is content to leave it there. The promoter looks to other sports – like Formula 1, tennis and golf – to compare and contrast with what he considers amateurish decisions made at the top of cycling’s tree. The Canadian races go head to head with La Vuelta and The Tour of Britain on the calendar – a less than satisfactory outcome for a man whose company have ploughed millions of dollars into the sport over the years.
“I am not rich, but I am not poor. Now it is quite okay – we don’t make a profit, but it is good for my soul. It is important for the people of Quebec also to realise that the world of sport is not only hockey.
“You cannot have two same-level competitions on the same day. Would you see that in golf? No! They don’t do their homework.
“They say: ‘You must understand, Serge: they have 20 riders, they can split them.’ I said, Jesus Christ, I’m not speaking about riders. I am speaking about space in the newspaper. When you make La Vuelta finish on the same day as my race in Montreal, you split the coverage. Both of us suffer. And TV-wise. When we want to negotiate rights and being on the air, they can play with La Vuelta and myself. And they are doing the same thing with Germany now because ASO want to make money there.
“If you have more than one event in the same category on the same weekend, you are dead. You kill the organiser, you divide the media, that is a crime. And the biggest thing is I felt so ashamed of who we are in cycling. The worst stupidity I saw was giving the WorldTour label to California and Turkey. The same level as us but with about 15 per cent of the obligation in money.
“When I am a businessman, I don’t laugh. Time is money. Firstly it was a fraud. Secondly, it is destroying the label I am paying for. My label is not worth anything, because they have given it away. They have not honoured the business deal.
“I don’t point my finger. The lack of money is responsible. But we don’t all have to be pulling on the same rope. As long as division rules, this is the disease.”
The hour is done. Serge has barely drawn breath. I have barely got a word in edgeways, but enjoyed every minute. This man talks a lot of sense. And I am still to meet a dislikable Canadian.
Watch the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec and Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal on Eurosport from 7pm – 9.30pm this evening.