The rugged beauty of the Niagara Escarpment as it curves around the end of Lake Ontario has always been one of the Golden Horseshoe's best-kept secrets, hidden as it is behind the phalanx of smokestacks and industrial grime guarding Hamilton Harbour.
That secret is about to be revealed to a worldwide TV audience estimated at 500 million.
The best cyclists in the world are coming to Hamilton, but the star of the world road cycling championships next week promises to be the craggy cliff that rises 200 metres from the flats that border the lake, offering a world-class challenge to man and machine.
"It's a great course for the worlds," Canadian cycling star Lynne Bessette said. "It's awesome and challenging and also quite pretty in places."
It's also entirely in an urban setting for the first time in the event's 68-year history.
"So often in Canada we race in small places in rural areas," Bessette said. "We race for the cows. I prefer people."
The cycling championships, a 10-race extravaganza that brings together many of the most talented cyclists on the planet, has been a long, arduous and sometimes tenuous struggle for the Hamilton organizers.
This is the 68th renewal of the event but only the fifth time outside Europe, where success is assured because of a cultural affinity to all things related to bike racing.
The event touts itself as the world's third most-watched sports spectacle, behind only the Olympic Games and soccer's World Cup. While that may be true through the magic of television, there is some question just how much impact it will have as a live event in a city and country unaccustomed to bike racing as a spectator sport.
The early vision of planeloads of Europeans descending on southern Ontario, bringing in as many as 50,000 cycling fans, was probably an optimistic estimate under the best of circumstances. But when SARS became a Canadian reality last spring, the trickle of reservations dried up almost entirely.
The SARS scare struck during a critical window of opportunity when international travellers would have been making plans for the autumn. Once the scare had passed, it was too late to retrieve those potential customers.
Former Canadian Olympic cycling hero Steve Bauer, now a successful bicycle tour operator, is the exclusive booking agent for the championships but the windfall he was expecting for his company didn't materialize.
"SARS was drastic and can't be underestimated," he said.
Organizers will have to count on the substantial ethnic populations of Toronto, Hamilton and the Golden Horseshoe, extending into northern New York, to generate the anticipated crowds of 50,000 (most of them watching from free vantage points) for the 10 races races staged over seven days.
Even though the live audience probably will fall below expectations, it doesn't mean the event will be less than an artistic success. International cycling experts have monitored the technical aspects of the preparations and have been unanimous in their approval of the demanding course that winds through city streets, scaling the heights of the Escarpment four times -- two up, two down -- over its length.
There were times over the past 18 months that it seemed unlikely the event would actually get to the starting line.
An early uprising of local merchants and concerned citizens, many of whom will be isolated inside the confines of the race course for much of the week, was quelled. Parents were upset at plans to close schools for the entire week. A series of public meetings seemed to soothe the hard feelings. Plans were unveiled to make sure essential service would be maintained inside the race zone.
Next crisis involved the city's share of the funding. The original figure of $400,000 had ballooned to as much as $4 million and was negotiated back to about $300,000, although very few people actually believe that's the extent of Hamilton's eventual bottom line. The federal government has already anted up $10 million and the province is on the hook for $2.25 million.
The success or failure of the championship is critical to Hamilton in ways that stretch beyond how it is perceived by cycling fans around the world. The city is one of the frontrunners to be host of the 2010 Commonwealth Games and the vote is scheduled less than a month after the conclusion of the cycling championships. Safe to say, the voters will be watching.
If all else fails, though, the event always has its secret weapon, that magnificent 500-million-year-old wall of shale and sandstone that will tag-team with its old ally, gravity, to beat all comers.