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Serge Arsenault: A Canadian Visionary

From issue 80 • Words & Images by James Startt

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Canadian Race Organizer Serge Arsenault, a pioneer in North American cycling, has a global vision for the sport. He first organized the Grand Prix de Montréal in 1988 and it was a tremendously successful World Cup event until 1992—when he had to suspend the event because European race organizers forced the UCI to move the Canadian race into mid-October, when the weather in Québec has already started to move into winter. It was not until 2010—when the UCI, then under president Pat McQuaid, awarded Arsenault a WorldTour license for his Québec and Montréal Grands Prix—that he made a triumphant return to the highest level of the sport. But while his tenure in pro cycling has been irregular, Arsenault’s vision over the decades has remained unchanged; he still crusades for a sport with a more focused calendar and events, unified telemetry capabilities, and clear profit sharing.


GP de Montréal 2018.
Serge Arsenault.

Serge, the Grands Prix of Québec and Montréal returned to the WorldTour level in 2010 after a near-20-year hiatus. And they have been tremendously popular, always bringing together a great field with great crowds…. 

Well, I am 70 years old, so I am now obliged to put my energy into things that I love while I am still here. The clock is ticking as we say. I no longer have time to lose, or errors to make. At this point in my life, I often ask myself, “Why am I doing this or why am I doing that?” And when it comes to my cycling investments, the answer is easy. I am still doing it because there are still a lot of things to do.

Sure, there are a lot of problems in the sport. There are a lot of people that work more in their own self-interest than in the interest of the sport. I’ve met with a lot of resistance over the years. But I still think there are things to do. In some ways, I am leading my own breakaway up here in Canada. [Tour de France organizer] ASO is focused on themselves; [Giro d’Italia organizer] RCS is focused on themselves; even Velon, who set out to be a real profit-sharing alternative, is focused on themselves. But I’ve got good partners and I have created two very popular events that the riders and teams really love, and I can still expand on that.

Well, you are no newcomer to resistance. You first held the grand prix races back in the 1980s and ’90s, but you were pretty much obliged to halt them. 

There was just one resistant. From 1988 until 1992 we had a tremendously popular event at the end of August. I had already discussed the dates with Hein Verbruggen, who was then president of the FICP, the sport’s governing body. He was aware that holding the event much later would be very complicated in Canada because once ice hockey starts in Canada and the NFL starts in the U.S. there is no longer any television time to broadcast such an event. In addition, by the third week in September, the weather really can change here. We had amazing fields: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche, Pedro Delgado, you name it, they were all here. Back then, the Vuelta a España was still held in the springtime so there was very little competition for us and, like today, the accommodations and travel conditions were top notch. But I think certain people started to see the event as a threat.

GP de Montréal 2018.
GP de Québec 2015.

At the time, AIOCC (the International Association of Cycling Race Organizers) controlled the calendar; and they were controlled by ASO, who had the biggest races and the most power. And at one point they wanted to move us to October and I just said, “No!” It would be way too cold and there would be no fans along the road, and there was no television time possible. It just wasn’t possible. And when I saw how much resistance I was getting I just said, “Stop!” It just wasn’t tenable. Trying to have a bike race here in mid-October is like trying to ski in July.

I was way too modern. Already, I was talking about profit sharing and then promoting major races on another continent. Some considered me a real threat. But by 2010 things had changed somewhat and I was able to get a UCI WorldTour license for both races and we were back in action.

You are a big advocate of circuit racing in city centers, right? 

You know, bicycle racing is like music. Different styles please different people. But, yes, I think that in many ways circuit racing is the way of the future. For the fans and television I think it is ideal. I was really hoping that an American city would follow suit, and I still hope to work something out with a city not too far away in the U.S. It would be easy to do a race around Labor Day weekend, the weekend before our events. We could use the same airline and much of the same structure. There are a lot of big cities that are close by and we could easily add a third race.

GP de Québec 2018.
GP de Montréal 2018.

How would you summarize your own vision for bicycle racing? Cycling has to have an entrepreneurial spirit. It’s got to see its flaws if it is ever going to improve, if it is going to provide remedies and solutions that bring the sport into the modern era. One flaw is that the calendar is way too crowded. There are too many races and too many boring races. There is total confusion in the calendar and there are way too many races for any one rider to compete in. But it is essential that all of the top riders compete in all of the top events. The rider, the cyclist, is the sport’s raw material, the base of everything. First, we need to reduce the number of races and have clear distinctions between the different levels. In golf there is the PGA, with a limited number of events and players. Formula 1 is the same.

If, in cycling, there were just 16 events for example during the year, all at the same level, that could guarantee all of the top riders and the same level of international television coverage. We could share the profits with the teams, so that they could guarantee that the top riders would participate in each event. It would be a very different story. That is what they do in other sports. In Formula 1, for example, Lewis Hamilton drives in all the races. It would be out of the question for his sponsor to say, “Oh, he is resting this week.”

So if we manage to create a new product that guarantees the highest level of competition throughout the year, we would be able to consistently attract top-tier television sponsors around the world and attract real international giants like Apple and Samsung. I have met with a lot of resistance over the years—which is fine. But for those that want to work with me, I say, bravo! We can start to build toward the future already ourselves! What I don’t have time for is to enter into the “100 Years War” of cycling. Some people are happy with the status quo. That’s fine. But I think that in many ways the sport is dying. The sport needs new continents. The sport needs new races. The sport needs to grow.

Your ideas are fascinating and the success of your Canadian grand prix events is proof that there is real potential. But you continue to meet with resistance. Look at the WorldTour calendar, which has only gotten bigger in recent years…. 

Yes, you know just three years ago we were in the final stretch to the line. We were on the verge of real reform. There was going to be serous calendar reform. And no major races would conflict with one another. I think everyone can understand the importance of a coherent calendar. In Formula 1, it would be unthinkable to hold the Grand Prix of Monza and Grand Prix of Monaco on the same day, or in tennis to organize Wimbledon and the French Open at the same time. But resistance came from where it always comes from. It always comes from the same places. As soon as they feel threatened that they might lose something, they do whatever they can to block it. Don’t get me wrong. The Tour de France is absolutely necessary in cycling, but it can’t prohibit the evolution of the sport.

And then of course, they eventually have to be open to some sort of profit sharing. We can no longer organize a major international event and keep all of the profits. Even F1 has turned to profit sharing with the drivers and teams. Personally, I don’t think race organizers should sell television rights. Instead they should receive a percentage of the ad revenues.

Michael Matthews won both GP de Montréal and GP de Québec this year!
Greg Van Avermaet attacks at GP de Montréal 2016.

Your ideas are fascinating and, in many ways, quite attractive. But it is difficult to see the sport making such a leap. 

At the end of the day, what counts is that there is a flawless product to sell. It has to be coherent and active. Velon’s Hammer Series for example is a tremendous initiative; but I think that the concept is flawed because there are too many races within each event. It is difficult to understand. And, as I have said, we really need a more-focused calendar, one where all of the top riders are in the same races. Great Britain, for example, needs to have a great national race with no competition on the cycling calendar so that all of the world’s best are certain to be there.

We also need to have a unified telemetry system to communicate the speed, watts and location of each rider. For the moment, different teams are working with their systems, Velon is working with their system, and ASO is working with their system. But it is all way too confusing, and you need a computer the size of a hotel to digest all of the data. These are things that all motor sports have for example, and such technology is crucial to make the sport more comprehensible and exciting for the average viewer.

And lastly, when it comes to doping, if a rider is positive, he is out for life. Doping is just killing the image of the sport, killing all of the efforts we make for our sponsors and our public.

For the moment, I have my races. But I would like to simply start with say five races around the world with such a formula, with a top-level budget, with unified telemetry, with all of the top riders present and profit sharing, etcetera. I am sure that their success would allow for the events to quickly grow. But for the moment I am taking off on my own breakaway, and my goal is still to bring renewed life to the sport.

From issue 80, get your copy here.