One evening every July Vancouver’s tourists, regular cyclists and all drivers turn Gastown over to the Gastown Grand Prix. It is surely one of the world’s most unique and odd bicycle races. Pro racers come from around the world to tear over rough cobblestones and around tight corners in the historic district, while crowds line Water and Cordova Streets to cheer and clang cow bells. Every few minutes Gastown’s steam clock lets out a lowing bellow that drowns out even the loudspeakers blaring sponsor’s ads and event announcements.
The Gastown Grand Prix began in 1973, and its storied past includes Lance Armstrong’s 1991 first place on his trek to Tour de France fame followed by doping-scandal infamy. The Gastown race is now part of a British Columbia Superweek series, attracting high end competitive racers. This year Americans Eric Young and Kendall Ryan won in the men’s and women’s races, respectively, crossing the finish line just before racers from Germany and Canada. (For details visit the Gastown Grand Prix official site.)
Gastown lies on Vancouver’s boundary between the ostentatious wealth of the downtown to the west, and the gritty issues of the Downtown Eastside. Its turf is shared by gentrifying condo dwellers. luxurious shops and restaurants, throngs of tourists, workers in cool start-ups, homeless people who wander the sidewalks, and addicts who have lately been dying in record numbers in one of the first world’s most-intense opioid crises. (I reported on that last year.) And each year the Grand Prix transforms this neighbourhood of vertiginous mixed uses into a race course.
Not all locals, though, relinquish their patches for the race. This year a few held fast among the cycle fans, the racers and their high-end machines, the beer tents and the corporate sponsors. First Nations carver Andrew (photographed with permission) offered a rather special point of view to observant passers-by. And in the alcove of a high-end home-furnishings store on Water Street, shielded from the cyclists by a barricade, a saxophonist of colossal talent sent sublime notes out over the crowds – for two hours straight.
For decades I attended big public events mostly as a reporter, wearing a media badge and working alongside a professional photographer colleague. This time it was a pleasure to grab my camera gear and wander through the crowd observing, rather than working. Serious sports photography is among the toughest to master, and as a writer who shoots news photographs on the side I claim no expertise in that field. But the Gastown Grand Prix on a sunny evening, with cobblestones lit by glaring late sun or cast in dark shade by tall buildings, was a fun playground to experiment with the photo challenges of the contrast of blinding light and deep shadows, and speed.
The kinetic energy of the Grand Prix left me with a desire to spend more time on city streets on my own two-wheeled mount. If you see a woman bumping over Gastown’s cobblestones on a much-loved, lower-end, fat-tire mountain bike – neither the rider nor the machine have anything in common with the Grand Prix racers – do wave hello.
Copyright Deborah Jones 2018