By Brendan Shykora
For two cyclists from the same city sharing a podium at one of the cycling’s top international events, it would be difficult to find a pair of athletes whose tracks to get there are more vastly different than Ottawa’s Vincent De Haître and Derek Gee.
With critical Olympic qualification points on the line at the 2019 Pan American Track Cycling Championships, the duo from Ottawa helped Canada’s men’s team pursuit team make the most of the thin air at the event in Cochabamba, Bolivia. At the championships the Ottawa tandem teamed with Jay Lamoureux, Michael Foley and Aidan Caves to set a national record en route to winning a gold medal in the event.
Their marker-breaking result was a time of 3:49.9 in the four-kilometre race, which was two seconds faster than the previous Canadian benchmark, and good for 2nd fastest in the world all-time.
“It was a very fast track and not a lot of teams have ever been there, which kind of inflates our results a bit,” said De Haître, who also finished 3rd in the kilo (one kilometre) time trial. “But at the same time we are constantly improving and we’re not that far off of being one of the top teams in the world.”
That’s no exaggeration: the team is ranked 4th in points internationally, putting them in solid standing to qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Gee is also sitting within Olympic qualification for the omnium, and solidified that standing with a gold medal in the event at the championships.
Gee is careful not to get ahead of himself, but he can’t deny that things are looking good for 2020 so far.
“Obviously you can never get complacent but yeah, I’m really confident that if nothing goes wrong we’re going to qualify and that we’ll actually be really, really competitive when the games roll around.”
Between the two Ottawans the national team has some useful versatility. Gee is the endurance specialist whose job is to save his best burst of energy for the latter half of a race. De Haître is the sprinter who lines up at the front of the team and gets the teams momentum going.
De Haître’s sprinting ability owes to years of training on short distances. However, those years were spent off the bike and on the ice. He’s already been to two Olympics as a speedskater and holds the Canadian record for fastest 1000 m on the ice.
Canadians may be forgiven if they underrate the challenge of jumping from speedskating to cycling: Clara Hughes made it look easy after she went to three Olympic Games in both sports.
But there are unique challenges that explain why so few athletes can make the transition. For one thing, there more events in speedskating, which means athletes can be more specialized in their distances. As a speedskater De Haître is a 1,000 to 1,500 m specialist, but those distances don’t exist on the bike (the kilo was removed from the Olympics after 2004 to make way for BMX racing).
“I’m specialized in a minute to two minutes of effort, and there are no events in cycling that are a minute to two minutes long,” De Haître told the Sportspage.
De Haître is set on proving himself as a dual sport athlete, and he’s done a lot of proving this year alone. He broke the one-minute barrier in the kilo at the September-held Pan American track cycling championships with a new personal best time of 58.95 seconds, making him Canada’s 1000-metre man in both skating and cycling.
De Haître isn’t content with being just any dual-sport athlete; he wants to be the best at both. He goes into this Olympic push having been to the show before, and he counts that experience as an advantage.
“In some cases you’ll have athletes who transfer to a sport in the hopes of achieving their goals, but they transition from a sport that they kind of plateaued in and they moved across to another one to further develop their potential.
“My goal isn’t just to participate at the Games. I’m changing sports while being the best in Canada at one sport to try and become the best in another.”
While De Haître the sprinter has been roving between different sports and ambitions, Gee has been playing the long game with his head down, working on his endurance since his days with the Ottawa Bicycle Club.
Gee has become a star on home soil, having won four gold medals in individual events in each of the past two national championships. Looking to defend those titles heading into this year’s event from Sept. 26 to 28 – just a few weeks after Bolivia – he was wasn’t feeling too much pressure. After all, if he loses, it’ll almost certainly be to one of his teammates.
“If I don’t win them all and I lose to those guys, it’s just showing the depth that the Canadian track program is gaining and how well the team is looking going into the Olympics.”
But really, it’s still fun to win against teammates, right?
“Yeah, yeah, it’s always the goal to walk away with the win,” Gee said with a laugh that exuded humility. “But we’ll see.”
Gee went on to win all four events once again. For now he’ll have bragging rights over De Haître, who only claimed one gold medal himself.
Ottawa’s Ariane Bonhomme was part of Canada’s women’s team pursuit team that also won a gold medal at the Pan Am track cycling championships in September. She’s vying for the opportunity to compete at her first Olympic Games.