The sun had started to set slowly over the horizon, casting slanted shadows of cyclists on the tarmac. A lone crack, the start gun sounded as the athletes powered forward after the lead car and past the crowds of families and college students cheering as the riders zipped by on their way around the circuit.
On July 14 the University of British Columbia hosted its very own competitive cycling race. As part of BC Superweek, which also puts on the Tour de Delta and the Gastown Grand Prix, the UBC Grand Prix showcases some of the best of cycling from all around the world.
The day started at noon, with some practice before the races. The teams and individual cyclists were seen working out on stationary bikes or taking a few laps round the criterium course.
A criterium, as opposed to a tour like the Tour de France, is a short race usually on closed off streets. A criterium is to a sprint like a Tour is to a marathon. For certain laps, small purses of money called preems are offered to the first person to complete that lap, which tends to ramp up the ferocity of an already intense race.
A high level of riding prowess was expected in the races, and even from the lower categories the technical skill was undeniable. Moving up, to the amateur races, and eventually to the pro races, the skill was unbelievable. The riders flew through curves at neck-breaking speeds, speeds that your average cyclists would crash and burn at, to the excitement of the spectators.
Five years ago, Jack Taunton and his wife Cheryl Taunton, with the support of Pete and Chris Mahony from UBC’s neighbourhood pub, Mahony and Sons, founded the UBC Grand Prix. In five years it grew to be a destination for championship winners, professionals, amateurs and household cycling sponsors.
Taunton is the co-founder of the Allan McGavin Sports Medicine Centre at UBC, one of the founders of the Vancouver Marathon and the Vancouver Sun Run. He was also the chief medical officer at the 2010 Winter Olympics and the Paralympics. Taunton definitely knows what it is about when it comes to sports.
It was after leaving the Olympics, a job he had worked for four and a half years, that Taunton decided to start the UBC grand prix.
“I’ve started lots of running races that have done very well, that I’m still involved in,” said Taunton. “But I wanted to start a cycling race.”
“So I went to the Mahonys, and I said to them, ‘would you sponsor my race if I started a UBC Grand Prix and be a part of Superweek' and they said yes and I guess the rest is history.”
But there is more to the UBC Grand Prix than just professional and amateur races. In fact one of the more important events in the Grand Prix was the kids race.
“My goal when I first presented this to Superweek and our committee, was that I wanted to make sure we had a kid’s race to promote cycling,” said Taunton. “I wanted to have a youth race so they could see the kids move on to youth, and I wanted to have a developmental race.”
Cycling already has a bad reputation for being boring and hard to get into. The races like the Tour de France aren’t really spectator friendly, partly because the courses spans hundreds of kilometres and because they take a really long time, like golf. You also need a good bike to start get into cycling, Which is expensive, like golf.
It can be a bit difficult to recruit new bikers. To combat this, it is essential to create a pipeline that would allow youth interested in cycling to go into a system and come out as professional athletes capable of forming their own teams in Canada.
This is a problem that has plagued many top class riders for years. There are restrictions on how many foreign cyclists one can have on a team, and so it can be hard to join an elite team and ride in tours. Too many times a rider finds themselves at the peak of their career but without a team to carry them to world championships and the grand tours. Many of the best riders tend to be poached off by the other teams from around the world.
“I wanted to be able to support those athletes to see that at the end of their racing career there was a rainbow,” said Taunton. “You could ride on an elite team, like this pro team that we have developed.”
The kid’s races had a surprising number of wipe-outs on the track but the children simply got back up and jumped right back unto their bikes. Add that die-hard commitment to the high on adrenaline, high octane, pro/amateur criterium races, and you get the best UBC Grand Prix to date.
The grand prix also included MEC corporate challenge, in which competitors raced against their business associates, friends and frenemies for domination. The sponsors broke top people from their companies into teams of four and had them race other companies.
“It builds team spirit at the company and so for that it is critical,” said Taunton.
“It is like conducting business on bikes and then business in the VIP tent,” added Jeff Hart, media director for the UBC Grand Prix. “It’s a great event in that sense because there is fun for the corporates, there is fun for the kids and there is the pro races that are great too.”