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The 26th Esprit Triathlon goes Saturday

Rick Hellard provides tips on how to race the event.

Montreal’s Esprit Triathlon takes place for the 26th time this Saturday.

In addition to the Esprit Iron distance race, other events include the Demi-Esprit (half iron distance), Esprit Olympic Triathlon, Duathlon, and Sprint Triathlon.

Set on beautiful Île Notre-Dame, the beautiful man-made island in the St. Lawrence River created for Montreal’s EXPO 67, the Esprit Triathlon started in 1985 and continues as one of Canada’s most unique races with a storied history that includes hosting the ITU’s Triathlon World Championship in 1999 along with numerous Canadian and provincial championship events for both Olympic and long distance.

The swim is done in the current-free Olympic Rowing Basin, built for the 1976 games. The water is typically 22 degrees Celsius, which means wetsuits are allowed, but certainly not required.

What makes the Esprit race truly unique is the bike course, which consists of laps around the 4.4 km Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, the site of Montreal’s annual Formula 1 race. The super-smooth road surface and relatively flat course (there’s actually one slight rise, which provides an excellent excuse to get out of the saddle and switch positions) makes for a super-fast ride.

The run course follows the perimeter of the Olympic Rowing Basin, a 4.6 km flat loop on a gravel trail that is as fast as the bike course.

More information can be found on the race website.


Rick Hellard of Zone3sports.com provides some insight on how to race the Esprit and he is definitely someone to listen to. Rick is a lifelong triathlete and full time triathlon coach who has competed at the Esprit Triathlon numerous times over the Half and Full distances. He currently holds the course record on the Full at 8:41 with a ride time of 4:31, and has a best time for the Demi of 3:55, with a ride time of just under 2:06.

The Swim


The swim is in the Olympic Rowing Basin, naturally fed by the St. Lawrence River.

The water in the St. Lawrence is what the French refer to as fraiche-not cold, but not warm either.  I find it just about perfect for swimming hard.

The water is almost always calm.

There is a wire on the bottom to follow so sighting is a non-issue.

There are meter markers on shore, easily visible if you take a few breaths on the left.

It’s accurate.

The transition zone is large, and I find it has lots of space.  That said, I have only done the Demi and the Full Esprit and do not know about the shorter races for sure, but it certainly looks ample enough.

The Ride

It’s awesome fast-perfect pavement allows you to simply pedal hard and steer.  The layout is such that if the wind is right, any headwind is blocked by trees and buildings, but the tailwind is unimpeded.  However, if the wind is wrong, the tailwind is useless and the headwind brutal.

This course is phenomenally fun-4.4km, mostly flat, a bit twisty and turny, it has one gentle uphill at the far end with a long gentle downhill sweeping left hand turn that launches you into a 1km straightaway to a hairpin turn and the crowds.  I have found you only need 4 gears for the whole ride if everything goes right-a flat gear to get you to the bump at the far end, one or two gears easier to get up the hill, two to three gears harder to go down it, your flat gear again all the way to the hairpin turn and start all over.

As I mentioned, the ride loop has a good number of twists and turns with one hairpin turn that is sharp for a car at 200kph, but not so bad for a bike at 35kph.  You do need to get out of your aerobars for this part, and maybe apply the brakes going into it or if someone is in the way, but coasting through it with your inside pedal up is likely good enough for most.  I pedaled through it quite aggressively last year until I hit my pedal on the ground thanks to my lean.  The back wheel jumped about 1 meter sideways and landed firmly back on the ground.  I continued on my way more than a bit cautiously.  This is not something I would recommend people try.

The Olympic and Sprint distance racers have to count their own laps.  I suggest simply looking at your bike computer and when the distance is close, get off the track at the exit.  Also, if you expect to be done your ride in 90min, and you are approaching the exit at 85min, the chances are pretty good it is time to take that exit.

For the Demi and the Full Esprit, Sportstats provides a separate timing chip for the front wheel.  Just before the hairpin turn everyone rides over a set of timing mats that count the laps.  With 3 laps to go, the personnel start a yellin’ to let you know you have 3, 2 or 1 lap to go.  Simple as that.

There is a feed station every lap, so there is no need to carry tons of supplies.

Many people are suspect of the ride times at Esprit, and unfortunately, some people do take advantage of the fact there are a lot of people riding really fast, and jump on the bullet trains getting sucked along, but the ride profile and layout truly do lend themselves to ultra fast times.  I would estimate this course to be about 3kph quicker than most and if someone cheats, it’s just that much faster.  The fastest outright times are all very legitimate, at least until there are more than 2 of them at a time.

There is no opportunity for a warm-up on the bike since the course is closed/being used when most of the races are getting under way.  If you wish to preview the course the day before, the general flow of traffic is actually in the reverse direction to race day, so you’ll really only get to experience it in the opposite direction.

Oh, and I almost forgot: glue your tubulars.

The Run

The run course is flat and potentially very fast.  It basically runs around the rowing basin with a small loop at the far end so it has a 2k straight section, the loop at the far end, and a 2k straight section right past or to the finish line, and if you have more than one loop, a 100m straight line to the other side.  As mentioned, the last 2k is a straight line and can seem long.  It is long.  In fact, its 2k long but it seems much longer.  It is also potentially very hot-it is, by design, nicely protected from the wind for the rowing competitions.  Fortunately or otherwise, this tends to make for tough days if you happen to be bad in the heat.

If you’re particular about your nutrition, it might be a good idea to bring your own supply-what they have is sufficient for most people, but it might not be for you.

The schedule of events.

The Full Esprit starts first, and then the Demi, then the other events are all very nicely spaced throughout the day to alleviate over-crowding on the courses.

All in all, the Esprit Triathlon is a wonderful experience and is well worth the journey.

As space is limited for the number of bikes on the Circuit, everything is full for this year.  You can always put it on your schedule for 2012.  Register early to avoid disappointment.  The fact it is sold out re-enforces my opinion and others about the quality of event they put together.

Hope this helps.