Iran-Canada Affair

Nigel Tufnel: “It’s like, how much more black could it be? And the answer is none. None more black.”

That was my overriding philosophy governing attire back in the early 90s. None more black. And when you try to cross international borders looking like a homeless Johnny Cash, The Man tends to get a wee bit uppity. Even when that border is the benign line separating upstate New York from Canada. But I didn’t know that then. Why? Because I was brash, 23, and oblivious.

So it’s October 1991 and I had the grand plan to witness in person the sole UCI World Cup held in North America: the GP des Ameriques on the legendary Montreal Mont Royal circuit. It was all so simple: drive to my friend’s house in Cornwall, Ontario on Saturday, watch the race on Sunday, drive back to New York on Monday. Simple, that is, until I hit the US/Canadian border. Everybody I’d ever talked to about travelling to Canada says it was a piece of cake, you just get waved through.

Me? I was asked to park my car and answer some questions inside their Canadian border bunker.

“Come with us, sir”

Perhaps it was my black hole of a wardrobe: black Doc Martens boots, black jeans, black t-shirt under a black sweater, black beret (don’t ask…I found it on the side of the road while doing a training ride in Telluride, CO that summer and should have taken a cue from the previous owner and just left it there to rot). Perhaps it was my grooming habits straight out of Barfly: I had about a 2 week growth of stubble; stringy, greasy hair; ramblings about a need for fuel and drinks for all my friends. Perhaps it was my passport. My Canadian friend, Denis, said to show the border patrol a passport since they tend to grant it more weight than a mere drivers license for ID purposes. That was object #1 of interest to my Inquisitors, particularly the lengthy trip to Ireland with a sidetrip to London taken 2 years prior. They took my passport, typed who knows what for lord knows how long into a computer, and proceeded to grill me.

Canadian Border Patrol: “Do you have any felony convictions?”
Me: “Uhh…that would definitely be no.”
CBP: [typing some more] “Are you sure?”
Me: [thinking to myself, “What the fuck is on that screen?”]

I had to explain my foreign exchange student visit to Ireland. I had to explain that, no, I didn’t steal my father’s car. And, yes, he knew that I was using his car for a weekend trip to Canada. I had to explain that the teenage cycling friend of mine, Dave, who was accompanying me had his parents’ permission. And then the kicker was when they asked for my friend Denis’ phone number so they could verify “my story”.

CBP: “Hello, is this Denis?”
Denis: “Yep.”
CBP: “I’m agent so-and-so with the Canadian Border Services Agency. Are you expecting an American friend this weekend?”
Denis: “Peter, is that you? You’re too fuckin’ funny.” Click.
Denis thought I was punking him and he hung up on the border agent. I asked for the phone and called Denis back. This time he stayed on the line, I handed the phone to the agent, and they set things straight.

Finally, about 1 hour later, I entered Canada. Their suspected IRA mule was clean.

The World Cup event the following day is largely a blur. I remember seeing Sean Kelly tooling around before the start. I got a good glimpse of Greg LeMond on the start line. Watching the Director Sportifs inflict innumerable dents to their rental team vehicles in a real-life game of bumper cars while jockeying for position on the narrow Mont Royal ascent each lap was a hoot. Top-to-bottom, it was probably the most star-studded single day race field I’d ever witnessed. Denis, Dave (my American partner in crime), and myself watched a good deal of the race on the ascent of Mont Royal as well as a section of road near the base of the climb where the peloton made their way back into the park having climbed and descended the Mont. It was along this stretch of road that my other international incident occurred.

We were trying to worm our way up against the snow fence to see the peloton approaching approximately mid-race but were finding the tifosi to be rather firmly afixed to their prime vantage points. So…I noticed behind me a set of stairs leading up a steep bank to an exquisitely manicured lawn about 6 feet higher than the sidewalk along the parcours. Set further back from the lawn stood an equally exquisite domicile. What’s the harm in just standing on their walkway for a couple of minutes?

While standing innocently and benignly on the walkway, just as the helicopters and motorcycles signalled the peloton’s imminent arrival, a squawking voice—heavily accented—blurted out of some heretofore unseen loudspeakers,

Get…off…the…lawn!

WTF??? What did I do now? So I quickly glanced around behind me and happened to read a sign letting me know that this building was the Iranian embassy. I was trespassing on the sovereign territory of Iran and someone was none too pleased. And that voice could be the same guy flaunting his microphone technique in the Strait of Hormuz—”I am coming at you. You will explode in a couple of minutes.”

I fled the premises lickety split.

Belgian strongman Eric Van Lancker (Panasonic) crossed the line first, outsprinting Dutchman Steven Rooks (Buckler) and Irishman Martin Earley (PDM) in a small group finish. To me, the hero of the day was Martin Earley who remained off the front for nearly the entire race. He went with the early move and survived all day in a fluid break which saw all of his original companions dropped and replaced by fresh legs as the race progressed. If I recall, also, Eric Van Lancker credited his STI shifters with assisting with the winning sprint. Rooks and Earley had to shift mid-sprint on their downtube shifters while Lancker could simply flick the rear shifter while in the drops sprinting full-out.

A smattering of photos from my day in Montreal: October 6, 1991…

The snaking peloton nears the end of a lap approximately 1/3 of the way through their 155 mile journey. The aforementioned Iranian embassy is about 300 meters to the right of this photo awaiting my imminent transgression.
Martin Earley (left) and Dag-Otto Lauritzen (right), off the front, make their final ascent of Mont Royal
Moments later, the peloton rockets up the climb.

Post-race we scored the best bagels of my life at a tiny shop near Mont Royal. The following day I crossed back to New York without incident via an interaction with American border patrol guards lasting maybe 15 seconds. Good thing…because I had a shitload more than my legal allotment of beer in the trunk.

Comments (5) to “Iran-Canada Affair”

  1. How great it is to see you posting again.

  2. I second that! Great story. J’habite a Vancouver mais je prefere Montreal (except that our mountains are much better).

  3. …very frickin’ funny…

  4. Love to read your stories, you always make history come alive. As a Montrealer (well from the ‘burbs) now living in the US, I can empathize about border crossing - not fun sometimes mon ami, and I wasn’t wearing all black.
    Wished I had been following cycling in ‘91. But I can count on you to give me more names to google, and more books to buy.

  5. …lyne, from one ex-pat canuck to another, & i think pietro will confirm this, owen mulholland’s “uphill battle” by velo press is a wonderful read…

    …owen lived & raced in france as a young man & became one of the first american journalist’s to cover le tour on a regular basis…he knows the details & writes well of them because they’re in his heart…
    …you will enjoy his stories…

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