The Tour of Alberta kicks off on Tuesday, September 3, with a prologue in Edmonton’s city centre. (Five stages follow, hopscotching south for the grand finish in Calgary.) This is a new event and a huge deal for both Canadian cycling and Alberta. Some elite professional teams will be here (Garmin-Sharp, Cannondale Pro, BMC Racing, for instance) as will some big names in the sport: Cadel Evans, Peter Sagan, and Canada’s own Ryder Hesjedal (complete with hipster sunglasses). Around the Gates’ household, we’re pretty excited. We’ve watched these guys on television every July, but the prospect of seeing them live is a little thrilling. My youngest son is, for reasons I don’t entirely understand, crafting a “Go Evans!” placard, while I am thinking of dressing up as a giant Jelly Belly, in honor of the team with the coolest name in the race.
But as the anticipation grows, several questions about the fledgling T of A linger. Here are a few, some of which I will attempt to answer/speculate on.
1.. Why no mountains?
If you look at the stage maps, you’ll notice something odd. None of the stages are in the mountains. (Stage 5 skirts the foothills near Canmore.) This is puzzling, given that the Rocky Mountains, and their beautiful Alberta mountain towns, Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper, are probably the most internationally recognized parts of the province. How can you have a proper Tour of Alberta bike race and not go through the Icefields Parkway? Not have a climb up to Edith Cavell or Lake Louise or Maligne Lake? Imagine a Tour de France without any stages in the Alps.
The answer I’ve heard is that the National Parks (which possess most of the paved roads in the Alberta Rockies) wouldn’t allow the race to pass through the parks. (You’ve got to think that if the race is a hit, the parks will re-consider for next year.) So Tour organizers were forced to come up with an alternate plan, which included a climb of the respectable Highwood Pass (the highest paved pass in the Rockies) in Kananaskis Provincial Park. But then the spring floods wiped out parts of that road, and the route had to be changed yet again.
2. Will a Canadian win something--other than the Top Canadian jersey?
This race exists largely because of Ryder Hesjedal; it’s hard to imagine it even happening without him. His success has gotten a whole generation of Canucks at least mildly interested in pro cycling. But this kind of short stage race, without much climbing, doesn’t really suit Hesjedal’s racing style. Still, you’ve got to think he’ll be fired up, racing on Canadian turf, and his Garmin-Sharp teammates will do whatever they can to make something happen for him. And let’s not forget that there are several other Canadians in the race, some of whom, like Ryan Anderson or Nic Hamilton, may just be capable of making things interesting.
3. How many stages will Peter Sagan win?
This guy has been a force of late, winning four stages in the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado, no doubt causing Mark Cavendish to cry himself to sleep every night. Given the relatively flat nature of the stages in Alberta, which should ensure sprint finishes for most stages, Sagan has an excellent chance of grabbing several stage wins here. Let’s just hope he doesn’t win them all.
4. Will there be enough face painters?
The Tour of Alberta calls itself a festival, not a bike race. That means we can expect all the familiar machinery of festivals in these parts: stilt walkers, green onion cakes, buskers, beer gardens, and the inevitable face-painting stations for the wee ones. I wish the bike race itself were enough of a big deal to get folks out and along the roadsides. But, realistically, the actual cycling will only bring out the hard core fans . . . whereas as a festival—well, everybody loves a festival.
5. Will the cyclists get chased by dogs in Hobbema?
I’m only half joking here. Stage 3 of the race passes through the Indian Reserve at Hobbema, in central Alberta, and as many cyclists around here know, reserve dogs are a special kind of badass hazard for cyclists. They tend to run wild and free, sometimes in packs, and have terrorized many a cyclist, including me. I’m sure race organizers have prepared for this. Perhaps it’s their way of throwing a wildcard into a relatively uninteresting central Alberta stage.
6. Will small town Alberta turn out in support of the race?
I have no doubt that Edmonton and Calgary will muster a respectable number of fans on the streets. It won’t be Colorado-type support, but it won’t be embarrassing either. There are significant cycling communities in each city, and they get it and are fired up about the race. But I’m less certain about towns such as Devon, Ponoka, Lacombe, Okotoks, Drumheller, which, according to the organizers’ plan, are supposed to be the heart and soul of the event. These places, with the possible exception of Devon (“Biketown Alberta”), are not exactly known as hotbeds of cycling. There just isn’t the kind of deep familiarity with cycling culture that you’d find in many small European, and even some American, towns. I think organizers are counting on locals coming out just because the race is something big and international, even if they don’t entirely understand what is going on. I hope it works; we’ll see.
7. Will there be an Alberta full moon?
For me, this is the biggest question of all. Let’s face it, watching a bike race in person can be pretty boring (whoosh—there they go!), but as the Europeans figured out long ago, the fan experience can be made fun by dressing up in outrageous costumes and putting on a show for the rest of us. Think of the wacky sights seen along the road of a typical Tour de France stage: screaming shirtless men running alongside the riders; that Dutch dude in the Satan outfit; drunken French guys in body thongs; and, best of all, the occasional full moon hung for the camera—the ultimate juvenile expression of make-your-own-fun. Never mind Hesjedal winning a stage; a well-executed roadside moon will make this Alberta cycling fan’s heart sing.