As Ryder Hesjedal hung up his helmet for the final time at the end of the 2016 racing season, it felt as if his retirement marked the end of an era that also included riders such as Christian Meier, Michael Barry and Dominique Rollin. While Hugo Houle, Mike Woods and Svein Tuft are now carrying the torch of Canadian cycling in the WorldTour, there’s talent bubbling just below the surface of the sport’s highest level. These, perhaps, are Canada’s next great hopes.
In September, at an event the night before one of Canada’s largest one-day races, the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal, Silber Pro Cycling principal owner Scott McFarlane had the unenviable task of announcing that three of his top riders were moving on to other teams. Ben Perry, 22, Matteo Dal-Cin, 26, and Alex Cataford, 23, had all been signed to new teams for the 2017 season. St. Catharines, Ont.-native Perry had signed with Cycling Academy, an Israeli pro continental team with financial ties to Canada. Ottawa’s Dal-Cin signed with the Rally Cycling continental team. Cataford, also from Ottawa, was off to pro continental UnitedHealthCare Pro Cycling. Together, the three represent some of the top talent in the country, and bear the weight of the future on their shoulders.
But for Silber directeur sportif Gord Fraser, watching the three move up the ranks is a microcosm of a bigger issue in Canadian cycling. “I think we’re punching above our weight in terms of the number of athletes,” he said. “If you look at history – how many athletes we have competing at a certain level – it’s as healthy as it’s ever been, but unfortunately the climate in Canada in terms of events and sponsorship within teams, it’s still dragging way behind the development of our riders.”
Fraser said it’s disappointing to see that while there are some bigger races in B.C., Alberta and Quebec, there are no major races in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province. “Canada hasn’t had a team of our level in many years. It’s just frustrating that we can’t secure some kind of corporate deal,” he said. “You see the results when we can’t hold onto riders like Alex, Ben and Matteo. We’re unable to graduate along with them. I hope some corporation out there sees us as an incredible opportunity.”
Fraser, however, isn’t losing everyone. Silber still has a number of strong young riders such as 22-year-old Nigel Ellsay from Courtenay, B.C., and 22-year-old Julien Gagné from Sherbrooke, Que. The three will likely primarily work to support veteran Ryan Roth, a five-time national champion who won the Tour de Delta, Winston Salem Classic and Grand Prix Cycliste de Saguenay in 2016, but will be given opportunities of their own, as well. “With our turnover, I think we can depend on Ryan to continue his production. He’s at the peak of his career and we certainly know what he’s going to bring,” Fraser said.
“A guy we’re looking to be more consistent next year is Nigel. He’s definitely one to watch for us.”
But Fraser knows the type of firepower he’s losing with the departure of the aforementioned trio. Perry had a stellar year that included a Tour de Beauce stage win, second overall at the Grand Prix Cycliste de Saguenay, a runner-up finish at the national road racing championships and the KOM title at the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal. His 2015 season included his second-straight under-23 national road racing championship, the national criterium title, another Beauce win and the KOM title at the Tour of Alberta.
Dal-Cin has spent the past three seasons with Silber, but 2016 was a breakout year for him. He played a major role in helping Perry take the KOM in Montreal and was 200 m away from winning the national road racing championships in Ottawa when he crashed hard. But it was earlier in the season that he first opened the eyes of other North American teams such as Rally. Racing in the Redlands Bicycle Classic in April, Dal-Cin was the model of consistency with four top-10 finishes in the five-day race, taking the overall title by 21 seconds. It was the first time the 31-year-old California race had ever been won by a Canadian.
Then there’s Cataford, a five-time Canadian junior national champion and the 2013 under-23 national time trial champion. He had signed with Amore & Vita in 2014, but in training that year was struck by a car and left with serious injuries that kept him out of action during 2015. An early-season crash in 2016 kept him away from racing until May, but he came back strong with his first-ever podium in a UCI stage race – second overall in the Tour of the Gila – and then fifth overall at the Tour of Alberta.
Fraser’s message for his three graduates is that the challenges will only increase with bigger teams. “They’re going to be thrust into bigger teams where they’re not necessarily going to race for themselves as much as they did with us,” he said. “How they maximize every opportunity they have – given that the opportunities will be fewer –
will be important to their future.”
He called it a catch-22. “You’ll have bigger salaries with more race starts and a more interesting race calendar, but it could easily backfire if you don’t grab those opportunities when you can,” he said.
If Perry is feeling any pressure, he’s not showing it. “It’s my first, as the UCI defines it, professional contract. It will be the first year I race the top guys in the world on a weekly basis,” he said. “I’ve had a taste of the pinnacle of the WorldTour, so now I’m going to prepare to confront challenges like that on a regular basis, not just a couple times a year. Silber has prepared me well and I’m itching to start racing.”
While Perry is off to Israel, Dal-Cin is headed to Rally Cycling, the Minnesota-based continental squad formerly known as Optum powered by Kelly Benefit Strategies that has become a popular landing pad for Canadians. Dal-Cin will join Rob Britton, Pierrick Naud and Adam de Vos, another young gun looked at by many as having high-level potential.
A 23-year-old from Victoria, de Vos joined the team in 2016 and made his mark by narrowly missing the win in the fifth stage of the Tour of California in May. That came less than two weeks after finishing fourth in the points competition at the Tour of the Gila. The rest of the season wasn’t as spectacular, but the future is bright for the rider who finished ninth at the 2015 under-23 road cycling world championships and was one of the highlights of Team Canada’s effort in Richmond, Va., that year.
“Our goal is to build a deep roster consisting of the best young riders from Canada and the U.S. and develop those riders with the help of our veteran athletes and experienced staff,” said Rally Cycling performance manager Jonas Carney. “Adam and Matteo fit perfectly into that role as they are professional, they work hard, and they both have lots of upsides. We believe they will be able to make the step to Europe in the next couple of years and we want to be the team to take them there.”
Where Rally sees itself as the final step before a move to Europe for young riders, H&R Block Pro Cycling, the team de Vos was on before Rally, has made a name for itself as being an early step in the development ladder – often giving riders their first big break. It’s a role in Canadian cycling that team owner Mark Ernsting takes pride in. “That’s what we are positioned to be successful doing,” he said. “With the 19 year olds, I look at them as more of a development project. Ideally, it’s a two-year development time here before they go on to the next level.”
For that reason, H&R Block is often a team targeted as a goal for young riders who see the value in donning the black and green jersey. “I wish a team like ours could accept 20 guys sometimes. It’s not easy to say no to riders,” Ernsting said. “Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with a rider, but you have space for 10 or 11 guys and since you always have returning riders, the door is open to three, four or five guys, max.”
For 2017, Ernsting has signed Peter Disera’s younger brother Quinton, who will balance a schedule of road and mountain bike racing, as well as Oliver Evans, Matt Staples and Jean-Denis Thibault. “We’ve got a really interesting cohort of 19 year olds who are going to be joining the team,” Ernsting said.
Like his counterpart at H&R, Rally’s Carney sees lots of potential in the wave of Canadian up-and-comers. “I see quite a few Canadian guys making it to the WorldTour in the next couple years. The big question is whether or not any of them can rise to the level of contesting big races over there,” Carney said. “Mike Woods is already getting results and he will do nothing but get stronger. Only time will tell if the other guys can be as competitive as a guy like Svein Tuft.”
Whether riders such as de Vos, Dal-Cin, Perry, Cataford and the others have what it takes is largely in their own hands. But not putting too much pressure on themselves at this point seems to be the common theme. “All I can really do now is my best,” said Perry. “Maybe I’ll be gone from cycling in two years or maybe I’ll win a Monument. I’m just going to keep focused and persistent in my training. I hope it all pays off and I have what it takes like those before me did.”