Thursday, September 10, 2015

Alberta's Tour de Mud(dle)

All Photos: Casey B. Gibson |
Last Sunday’s stage 5 of the 2015 Tour of Alberta was a curious combination of farce and epic. Some will see what happened that day as irrefutable proof that the event is doomed; others, me included, will see past a muddled ending to great promise.

For naysayers, those skeptical of the whole Tour of Alberta enterprise, the fiasco near the end of stage 5, when second wheel Sven Erik Bystrom took a wrong turn at Albuquerque and the peloton followed him until a marshall on motorbike informed them all that they had to turn around, will be the defining moment of this year’s race, evidence that Alberta’s attempt at pro cycling is bush league.

But if you ask me—and, I bet, if you were to ask most of the riders; okay maybe not Bystrom—the wrong turn was unfortunate but not a huge deal. Such things are hardly unheard of in a bicycle race. And the wrong turn appears to have been at least partially Bystrom’s fault. Race video clearly shows him blowing past two course marshalls vehemently signalling a right turn. (In his defence, though, there probably should have been a barrier forcing the riders to turn.) Crazy as it sounds, these things just happen sometimes in bike races. Tour of Alberta technical director Jeff Corbett’s assessment sounds flippant, but he’s right: “I blame it on bike racing,” he said. “It’s bike racing.”

The timing of Bystrom’s wrong turn (near the end of the race) was a shame, really, because up to that point the day had been an epic stage, the stuff of legend. There was the distance (200+ kilometres, the longest stage in event history), the weather (pounding rain, cold, and cross-winds), and, best of all, the 30+ kilometers of gravel (okay, mud). The combination was brutal—in the best possible way. Visibility in the peloton was zero. It was all mud, all the time. At one point, a camera motorbike wiped out on the slick conditions and for a brief second the camera feed ran on live tv while it was lying on its side in the middle of the road. That’s the kind of crazy it was.

Race directors, recognizing the effect of the weather on the gravel sections of the route, had reduced the amount of gravel from the original plan but, to their credit, they left enough gravel for it to be a significant factor in the race.

In fact, stage winner Lasse-Norman Hansen made his decisive move on gravel. In a lead group with three other riders, the pace slowed noticeably on a muddy road and that’s when Hansen hit the gas.  “I went from the break on the second-to-last section of the gravel simply because I was freezing and I wanted to go faster,” said Hansen. “I was freezing the whole way and I thought, ‘These guys are going too slow. I will never get any heat in my hands again.’” I love this explanation. He won the race, but Hansen makes it sound like his victory was merely a side effect of his intense desire not to die on some dirt road in Parkland County.

Stage Winner Hansen Going Solo
All the best bike races feature suffering. Think of those snowy Giro passes in May; the howling winds of the Tour de France’s Mont Ventoux; and, most pertinently, the famous mud of Paris-Roubaix. The trick is to create a unique kind of suffering. And, the Bystrom confusion aside, that’s what I saw on Sunday. Naysayers can harp on all they want about the muddled ending, but the image I’ll remember is the mud, period--the glorious, gravelly, legendary Alberta mud. 

1 comment:

  1. Well said, Jasper. I love the Tour of Alberta in all its muddy glory.


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