The second edition of the Tour of Alberta bike race runs September 2-7 and the race route includes some notable changes from last year, some of them intriguing and others perplexing. Here are one humble fan’s observations about this year’s route (which can be found on the Tour website):
South to north, in and out: While last year’s race started in Edmonton and finished in Calgary, this year the direction is reversed, so the prologue takes place in Calgary on September 2 and the final stage, number 5, happens in Edmonton on September 7. I imagine that this alternating direction from year to year will be the general pattern for the T of A, should it survive, and this makes a certain sense, following in the tradition of the Tour de France, which alternates between clockwise and counterclockwise routes from year to year. As for changes to the cities and towns involved, Red Deer and Devon (Biketown, Alberta) are out; Lethbridge and Innisfail are in.
Mountains? This year’s route contains no mountain stages and no significant climbing other than short, steepclimb at the end of the 4-km prologue in Calgary. Last year, rumor had it that the National Parks system refused to allow the race to pass through Banff or Jasper National Parks—the two most spectacular mountain-road options in the province. As a kind of consolation, the organizers came up with a mountain stage in Kananaskis Provincial Park (which included the respectable Highwood Pass).
But this year, for some reason, race organizers have decided to forgo the mountains altogether. It’s a puzzling decision. Imagine the Tour de France deciding to skip the Alps and Pyrenees. It’s inconceivable. I know the comparison is unfair, but race organizers would do well to study Alberta’s provincial flag: wheat field in foreground, rivers and trees in the middle, hills and mountains in the background. In order for the Tour of Alberta to be taken seriously, it’s going to have to figure out a way to get the race into Alberta’s mountains.
Edmonton/Strathcona-centric: Three of the six stages (I’m counting the prologue as a stage) have an Edmonton or Strathcona-County connection. Stage 3 runs from Wetaskiwin to Edmonton via Strathcona; Stage 4 starts in Edmonton, loops through Strathcona, and ends in Sherwood Park; Stage 5 is an 11-lap circuit of downtown Edmonton. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of the roads of Strathcona. The oil money of Sherwood Park has created one of the best networks of paved rural roads in the province, just east of Edmonton. And all those stages just east of Edmonton sure are convenient for yours truly. But for a stage race that claims to showcase a whole province, there’s a curious emphasis on the capital city and on this one area east of it. Isn’t part of the mandate of this race to showcase the diversity of Alberta?
Coming in for a landing: Stage 3 ends at the Canadian Armed Forces Base north of Edmonton (aka the Edmonton Garrison), with three short laps around a circuit that includes the airstrip. I can’t decide if this incorporation of the runway in the finish is silly or smart. Sure, it’s a gimmick, but I suppose it could work. I can see the Garrison folks showing up en masse for an event like this. What the riders will think of it, I don’t know.
Crosswinds: With such a flat course, what can you really say about the strategy involved in this year’s race? The race website’s description of the Stage 3, the 162-km route from Wetaskiwin to Edmonton claims that “the course has the potential to be deceptively difficult due to the prevailing crosswinds on the open roads running south to north.” Good grief. That’s like saying the course could be tricky if it snows or if the zombie apocalypse happens that day. You can’t count on wind—or zombies, for that matter—to make your race interesting.
“Canadian Pave”: This is my favorite twist in this year’s route. The 163-km stage 4 in Strathcona County features three sections (for a total of 5 km) of what the race website calls dirt (or “dust-controlled,” whatever that means) roads and rough pavement, which organizers are calling “Canadian pave,” after the cobblestone surfaces found in Europe. (I can’t tell if the organizers are using this term ironically or if they are actually suggesting that poorly maintained, pot-hole-ridden prairie pavement is somehow akin to the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix.) This could be a brilliant move. Gravel/dirt roads are an essential part of Alberta’s rural landscape, and if race organizers truly want to create a prairie road race, then incorporating these roads into the route is a terrific idea. Personally, though, I’d take it much further. Why not a stage that’s, say, 50% gravel?
Overall, I have to say this year’s route is uninspiring and more than a little puzzling. I’m not sure how the race organizers choose the route, but I imagine it has a lot to do with which communities come forward with bids to be involved. The problem with such an approach, of course, is that it’s ass-backwards. Ideally, organizers would design interesting, unique, challenging, diverse stages and then find communities they can work with in those areas.
Here’s what this cycling fan wants to see in the Tour of Alberta: a route that covers more of the province, that looks like that flag above, that always includes at least one mountain stage, that features landscapes that are, well, recognizably Albertan—like the Badlands, like the windmills and coulees of Pincher Creek, like the Orthodox-church-sprinkled gravel roads of Kalyna Country. Hell, have the riders do laps around a tailings pond outside Fort MacMurray.
At least that would be a genuine Alberta experience.