Published in the Montreal Gazette on October 25, 2014
We have read regularly for the better part of this past summer about the pleasures and woes of cycling on Montreal’s extensive network of urban bicycle paths. Cycling for the simple enjoyment of the pastime or for its usefulness as a means of transportation through the congested streets of the city has long been discussed. What has rarely been considered, however, is this same activity as a competitive – very competitive – sport in Quebec. In fact, the pursuit has a lengthy and splendid history in the province, and that narrative exists to this day (“Gerrans cycles to Grand Prix double in Montreal and Quebec City”, Gazette, September 15, 2014, D-5).
Indeed, from the Great Relay Race of 1894 through to the incredible exploits of the multi – talented athlete, Louis Rubenstein, cycling was, and still is, very much a Montreal passion. Rubenstein himself was president of the Canadian Wheelmen’s Association for over 18 years.
Perhaps no period was as remarkable as were the years immediately before, and just after, the outbreak of World War Two.
In 1939, for example, several races took place which were actually quite notable.
On June 11 of that year, Montreal’s Wolfe Cycle Club sent six representatives to participate in the 100-mile Long Island Classic in New York City. The Verdun – based club, with 37 riders, was the largest of the eight bicycle organizations operating in Quebec at that time. The Long Island competition, which was often compared to the Boston Marathon in terms of prestige, regularly attracted the best amateur racers from across North America.
Of the 136 participants, less than half actually completed the demanding competition, three of whom were from the Wolfe Cycle Club: Dennis Murch, Norman Wilkins (my late father), and Phil Laberge. The squad returned to Montreal the following day to much enthusiasm.
below, Norman Wilkins (left) and Dennis Murch, June 4, 1939, Verdun, Desmarchais Boulevard, Verdun
Later that same summer, and just days before the outbreak of World War Two, an even more punishing race was undertaken, this one from Quebec City to Montreal – some 180 miles (300 kilometres). Starting at 6:00 A.M. at the picturesque Chateau Frontenac Hotel in the Ancient Capital and ending on Sherbrooke Street East in this city, the battle was an annual event back in the day, the first one having taken place in 1931.
The Wolfe Cycling Club entered five participants for the grueling affair in 1939: Bob Taylor, Norman Wilkins, Dennis Murch, Leslie Sheen, and Gunner Erickson.
In the due course, the Quebec City cyclist, Henri Hémond, won the race in the record-breaking time of just under eight hours. However, in what one local newspaper called “one of the most amazing finishes of the bike derby, there were nine riders in the sprint at the finish line on Sherbrooke Street East.” Erickson, of the Verdun club, was just inches behind the winner.
Montreal Mayor Camilen Houde greeted the cyclists at the finish line, just a year before his arrest for having counselled Montrealers not to register for national conscription.
Of the 37 starters, only 18 finished. All five racers with the Wolfe Club terminated the run.
Nowadays, the daylong marathon is known as the Classique Montréal-Québec Louis Garneau and, when it occurs, the competition starts in Montreal at the Maurice Richard Arena and ends in the outskirts of Quebec City at the head office of Louis Garneau Sports. In terms of distance, it is the longest race in North America, and is nowadays open to professional teams only. However, the contest has not taken place since 2011 because of security issues due to the high number of motorized vehicles on Quebec’s highways, and the expense in dealing with that reality in order to assure the safety of the riders.
Also popular many years ago was the Six Day Bike Race. There were two great periods in this city for this punishing event, 1929-42 and 1963-80. In the former era, the competitions were staged at the Montreal Forum while during the more recent years the contests took place at the Paul Sauvé Arena and the Olympic Velodrome. Both of the latter two venues have since been done away with.
The British Columbian-born William ‘Torchy’ Peden was one of the world’s top ten cyclists in this field, which saw wheelmen compete habitually in indoor facilities. In that regard, the track in the Montreal Forum required 15,000 feet of green spruce that took 32 hours to assemble and another six to take down!
.A big man, Peden was a crowd darling in the glory days of the sport. Of the 127 events in which he participated, Peden won 38, seven of which took place in the old Montreal Forum. He is ranked seventh overall in the history of the sport.
below, Montreal Star advertisement for the 1940 Six Day Bike Race at the Montreal Forum