Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Tour of Alberta 2015 Preview

Photo credit: Edmonton Journal
Feels like this could be a  breakaway year for the Tour of Alberta bicycle race. After a couple of years of mixed results, during which the race sometimes suffered from uninspired route choices and an uncertain identity, the T of A is showing signs of finding its form. Here’s why:

Mountains, finally. For the first time, the Tour will venture into a national park in the mountains, with two stages (3 and 4) in the Jasper area. This is a breakthrough for the race, finally lending legitimacy to the race’s claim to showcase the best of Alberta. Of the two mountainy stages, the second one, especially, with a 12 km climb up to a summit finish at Marmot Basin ski resort, looks ripe for some drama. The inclusion of mountains will go a long way toward making the T of A a serious stage race.

Worlds, next door. For the first time in a generation the World Championships of cycling are happening in North America this fall (in Virginia, to be exact). That means that North American pro races in the late summer and early fall stand to attract unprecedented numbers of elite riders who are tuning up for the Worlds.  A recent New York Times article about this situation mentioned the Tour of Alberta in the same breath as the Tour of Utah and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. The article suggested that these major North American races should see more of the world’s top riders than ever. Tour organizers know this and, to their credit, have added a team time trial (in place of the individual one) so that teams can use it as preparation for the world TTT.

Canadian Pavé, encore. Last year’s experiment of including a short section of gravel roads—termed, somewhat coyly, “Canadian pavé” by race organizers—on one stage has been greatly expanded this time around. Stage 5, from Edson to Spruce Grove, includes 56.4 km of “dirt roads” (though that is a bit misleading; these are gravel roads, in my book). The race website proudly proclaims that this will make for “one of the most diverse courses of any professional race in North America this year.” I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I do like the embracing of gravel. It seems to be turning into a key part of the Tour of Alberta’s emerging identity.

Ryder, redux. Hesjedal is back at the Tour of Alberta this year after missing last year’s race to ride in Spain. In the Tour of Alberta’s first year, 2013, Hesjedal was a big draw, having won the Giro the year before. His performance at that inaugural Tour was nothing special (the flat course wasn’t suited to his strengths), with Ryan Anderson beating him in the Top Canuck category, but it hardly mattered. Cycling fans, me included, just wanted to get a glimpse of the big Canadian in person. This year, Hesjedal, coming off an unremarkable Tour de France in which his Garmin-Cannondale Team had a disappointing time of it, may have a better chance at winning something, maybe one of those mountain stages.  Other Canadian riders such as Anderson and Rob Britton (winner of the Tour of the Gila and 10th overall in the Tour of California) may have a better chance to finish in the top 10, but Ryder has a certain star power around here that adds pizzaz to the profile of the race. 

The organizers have taken some bold steps to toughen up this race, to make it harder and dirtier—in a good way. In doing so, they may well be giving the Tour what it badly needs: a distinct personality, one that is part mountain-man, part cowboy, a lot of rural and a bit of urban.

That’s starting to sound like the Alberta I know.

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