June 12, 2015 (Beauce, QC) – Jean Lessard, the man who founded the Tour de Beauce (TdB) in 1986, had a lot to say when we asked him what was behind his decision to start one of the greatest cycling stage road races in North America celebrating it’s 30th anniversary this year. Here is his story:
“When I was a kid growing up near St-Georges-de-Beauce, there was a big international race – Le Tour du St-Laurent – that passed right in front of my family’s house in 1960. My brothers and I waited for hours to see the peloton composed of Russian, Hungarian, Italian, French, Polish, Czech riders, etc. We were afraid of the Russians because (during the Cold War) they were supposed to be the bad guys. Seeing this international race gave me the bug; it inspired me,” explained Lessard.
“The very first club I rode for was run by Pierre Gachon who had a bike shop on Masson Street in Montreal. Gachon was the first North American to compete at the Tour de France (in 1937 as part of the British team). He was a very nice man and quite soft-spoken. Gachon also had a scrapbook that was maybe six inches thick – full of newspaper clippings from his glory days – and I used to read that scrapbook in his store for hours. Sometimes Gachon would have to chase me out of the store because he wanted me to lock up and go home,” Lessard continued.
Gachon sponsored Lessard’s first cycling team. The young cyclist rapidly progressed and was soon riding for the Canadian national team, winning the North American (combined Canada, Mexico, U.S.A.) amateur road championship in 1971 and the Canadian TTT championship in 1973. He spent many months each year in Europe, competing at events such as the 1969 UCI Amateur Road Worlds in Brno, Czechoslovakia and the 1973 UCI Road Worlds in Barcelona, Spain. But in 1975, Lessard hung up his bike for financial reasons.
“In 1983 and 1984, I wanted to make a return to competition. But there were no more good road races in Quebec. It takes good stage races for the development of young cyclists in Canada. So I proposed what was originally called the Grand Prix cycliste de Beauce.
“When I chose the circuits, I tried to make them competitive and looked for lots of up-and-downs. You cannot quickly recover from those ups-and-downs. This made the TdB stages very difficult. But I made the race in my own image and I was a good climber,” commented Lessard.
We wondered if Lessard actually raced at the first Tour de Beauce that he and others founded, that was won by James Gilles from Nova Scotia.
“For the first edition in 1986, we had 60 cyclists riding two stages around Beauceville. It was a tough race, but I didn’t want to make the distance too long. We only had a few Americans at first; no other foreigners. I don’t think I saw the winner (James Gilles) again after his 1986 victory. Besides organizing it, I rode in the first TdB and finished I think in 3rd or 4th place,” recalled Lessard.
In 1987 the event became three days and later on four days – and the now famous Mont Mégantic climb… ?
“We added the Mont Mégantic (1,102m or 3,615ft) climb in 1989, the year after the road to the summit was paved with asphalt. I contacted the Université de Montréal which owned the property (around the mountain-top astronomical observatory). It makes a good stage riding up that mountain, a little bit like a stage at the Tour de France or the Giro. The only local mountain available for such a climb was Mégantic.
“I lived in Montreal and went to the Beauce sometimes for 15 days straight, doing that for 10 years. I did all this as a volunteer; we had no budget. Sometimes I wonder how I managed to do that. Slowly over time other former riders became involved such as Marc Blouin, Eric Van den Eynde, Pierre Hutsebaut, Magella Tremblay, and Yvan Waddell. I made Pierre the first race director for the first two years and then Magella took over. After 10 years, many people were involved and I retired.
“It was my dream to get an international sanction (for the TdB). This made me recall when I was a kid and the international peloton from Le Tour du St. Laurent passing right in front of my family house. When we received the international sanction in 1991, the peloton again went past my family home,” added Lessard.
Editor’s note: this is only a small portion of what Lessard, now 65, recounted to us. These and many other stories are contained in a manuscript that he is writing and hopes to have published soon.