Friday, September 8, 2017

T of A 2017

Photo credit:
Poor old Tour of Alberta. Canada’s only pro cycling stage race, which wrapped up Monday here in Edmonton, is hurting. 

This year’s edition shrank to a measly four stages (the first two years, 2013-14, it was five stages plus a prologue; in 2015 it was 6 stages, no prologue; and then last year it went down to 5 stages). (The only part of the Tour of Alberta that is growing rather than shrinking is the Velothon, the mass participation event held on the closed course in the morning of the final day. This was a huge hit last year and had even more participants this year.) Then word came out last week that government funding for the event is going to be cut even more. Plus, I get the sense that communities aren’t exactly lining up to pay the hefty stage-host fees that this kind of event counts on.

The lean economic times led to the T of A adopting a hub model for this year’s race. Three of the four stages were in or near Edmonton (if you count the 350 km to Jasper “near”). Only the opening Jasper stage ventured beyond the capital region. And all of the stages were circuit courses: three times around small circuits in Jasper National Park; three times around a circuit near Spruce Grove; 10 times on Saturday in Edmonton; 11 on Sunday. Presumably, this was done to save money; circuits require fewer road closures.

Alas, these money saving maneuvers and some other questionable decisions have affected the quality of the product. This year’s route was the least interesting in the event’s 5-year history. Even the “mountain” stage in Jasper National Park, which you’d think would offer the most challenging stage route, included just the one mountain climb, the summit finish at Marmot Basin. The other three stages were flat enough courses to ensure a sprint finish each time. And unlike the last few years’ routes, this year’s race didn’t include a time trial or gravel sections, even though it would have been easy to work in some dusty bits on stage 2.

And having two urban stages in Edmonton on Sunday and Monday shows a lack of imagination. (They tried this last year too, but at least one was a time trial.) Sure, you could argue that two city stages provide more opportunities for spectators, but there’s also a risk of diffusing the crowds across two days instead of one. If you’re going to have two Edmonton stages, make one of them more interesting and challenging than endless loops of Groat Road. Our river valley has some much more creative options when it comes to incorporating steep climbs in a route.

Still, on the course on Monday afternoon, watching the race, I felt the old thrill of being around professional bike racers. Sure, the GC race was boring as balls. The layout of stages pretty much ensured that whoever won stage one in Jasper would, barring a crash or mechanical, win the overall. And the crowd along the course felt smaller than it has in previous years, probably a result of the back-to-back days.

But the stage itself held some drama. Some Canadians were in the breakaway, and even if we knew that effort was almost certainly doomed to be swallowed up by the Team Cannondale machine, I found myself totally absorbed in cheering on Matteo Del-Cin’s valiant effort anyway. That’s bike racing.

What will happen to the Tour of Alberta? Can it survive? I really hope so. With some shrewd and creative scheming, I think it still can carve out a unique and sustainable position on the North American pro scene. But it’s got to do better than this year.

All I know is that I’d miss it if it disappeared. The T of A has become an end-of-summer ritual for me and many other cycling fans in Alberta. Just five years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d said I’d be watching live professional bike races in Edmonton every Labour Day weekend.

Fingers crossed that I’m still doing that in another 5 years.              


  1. I hope the race continue to, Jasper. I love that photo of the racers with the "ledge" in the background. Wow!

  2. I hear what you're saying about the Jasper stage, but unfortunately as long as there are only mountains with one road up and the same road down in the park, the best they can do is one summit.

  3. That's true, Darryl. But with some creative thinking, there are ways to include multiple climbs. In 2015, the T of A had a stage from Grande Cache to Miette that included a major climb on Highway 40 and a summit finish within the final 17 km. A similar two-climb course is feasible in the south with Highwood Pass and, say, a Sunshine finish. Or--and this is the dream stage--a Jasper to Lake Louise stage that includes the Big Bend on the Icefields Parkway and a summit finish. It's not easy, but I think it could be done.


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