Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Tour of Alberta 2016 Preview

The Tour of Alberta professional bicycle race is just a few weeks away, but I have to admit that I’m having trouble getting excited about it. The race route this year is, in my view, the least inspired one in the race’s four-year history. Why? No true mountain stage, very little gravel, and too many urban stages. 

As I’ve said here before, for the Tour of Alberta to succeed, it’s got to do more than just secure stable long-term funding and attract some recognizable names. Organizers also have to create some kind of unique identity in the North American scene. Selecting race routes that showcase the diverse landscapes and natural wonders of our province is a big part of this. Last year, I thought, was a breakthrough for the Tour in this regard. For the first time, the Tour visited Alberta’s mountain national parks, with two stages in the Jasper area, featuring genuine alpine climbs—something previous Tour routes have seen too little of. (In fact, I can think of only one other big climb: the Highwood Pass in 2013). 

This year, however, the so-called mountain stage, stage 2, begins in Kananaskis and ends in Olds. Now Kananaskis is pretty country, to be sure, and I can picture the backdrop of lovely mountains as the peloton rolls out, but there’s no major mountain climb in the route. In fact, the stage profile shows that this “mountain stage” is mostly downhill.

After last year’s Jasper component, this year’s “mountain” stage feels kind of lame. Jasper has committed to hosting stages every other year, in keeping with the race’s mandate of alternating north and south routes, but I say that race organizers have to find a way to get southern Alberta mountain towns (I’m looking at you, Canmore and Banff) into the mix as well. Kananaskis, especially without the Highwood Pass, does not quite cut it. The Tour really needs to get this southern Alberta mountain business sorted out.

The second disappointment of this year’s route is the scarcity of gravel on the rural stages. “Canadian pavé,” organizers’ cheeky name for Alberta gravel, was first introduced in 2014, and after it proved to be a hit, the amount of gravel was expanded last year to over 50 km  (though wet weather caused that to be scaled back). This year, stage 3, from Rocky Mountain House to Drayton Valley, includes one 6.5 km stretch of gravel near Leslieville. That’s it.

Jeff Corbett, race technical director, explained in an email, “We at the Tour of Alberta . . . like the flavor that it [gravel] adds to race. That being said we only include these sections if they fit into our existing route and are of a certain quality. For example, many dirt or gravel roads have large chunk gravel that is only suitable for cross or mountain bikes, while others have so little gravel that they would be too messy and dangerous if it rains. We need a nice compromise between the two and when we find this and it fits into our existing route we will try to include.”

Fair enough. He’s right about the variance of gravel roads around here. But in my experience riding Alberta’s gravel roads, it’s not that hard to find the just-right, Goldilocks gravel roads that would work for this. If you really want to find them, they’re out there.

Part of the problem is that the five-day event (down from six last year) has only two rural stages on which to even find gravel. The race begins with a city circuit in Lethbridge and ends with one in Edmonton, but the intriguing decision to also have a time trial in Edmonton (stage 4), partnering with/piggybacking on the Edmonton World Triathlon on the same day (and using the same route), means that three of the five stages are urban. I’m not saying that’s necessarily bad, but it is a departure from previous versions of the event, where rural stages dominated.

I don’t mean to come across as a naysayer. I want the Tour of Alberta to survive and prosper. And I know that times are tough for race organizers. Alberta’s economy is so deep in the toilet, it’s barely visible amid the swirl. This means that communities aren’t exactly lined up at the Tour’s door waving the hefty host fee. Tour organizers have limited options and are, I’m sure, trying to do their best with limited resources. But I worry a bit about how this year’s route might be perceived as something of a step backwards or, at best, sideways at precisely the moment when the Tour of Alberta’s emerging identity was poised to move forward. 

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