Thursday, February 22, 2018

Farewell to the Tour of Alberta

At the Tour of Alberta Prologue, 2013.
When the news came down last week that, after a five-year run, the Tour of Alberta professional bike race was kaput—a victim of Alberta’s economic downturn was the official reason cited—I don’t think anyone who follows the world of bike racing was surprised. Disappointed, sure; sad, maybe. But probably not surprised.

This has been coming—in fact, has seemed inevitable—for a while. Government funding for the event has been dwindling the last couple of years, and Alberta’s struggling economy has meant that other sources of funding—corporate sponsorships, community host fees—have been getting scarcer and scarcer. When the size of the event shrank in 2016 and again in 2017, it was starting to look like the beginning of the end.

Finger pointers will be tempted to aim digits at the City of Calgary for failing to support the T of A. Over the five-year existence of the race, exactly two stages were held in the province’s largest city. This was obviously a problem, and a bit of a baffler. Road cycling is probably bigger in Calgary than Edmonton, and certainly a part of Calgary’s corporate culture. Yet city politicians and administration weren’t interested in spending much money on the Tour.
(Edmonton, meanwhile, did more than its share, getting behind the Tour from the get go, hosting or being the finish for nine stages during that time. In addition, numerous stages were held within an hour’s drive of the capital, drawing on the support of Edmonton’s fan base.)

The Tour’s failure to get any traction in tourist-packed Banff National Park will also go down as a contributing factor. Arguably the most scenic roads in the province, those around Banff, Lake Louise, and the Icefields Parkway, never made it into a single stage over the event’s five years, making it difficult to claim that the race showed off the best of the province. 

But thinking about the Tour of Alberta now that it’s gone, the surprising thing isn’t that it folded; the remarkable thing is that it ever existed at all. The creation of the Tour of Alberta back in 2013 was remarkably ambitious. The race was largely the brainchild of former pro and Edmonton resident Alex Stieda, who dreamed it up and fought for years to build the enormous support required to make an event like this happen. His pitch was bold: Alberta has the stunning and diverse geography for a short stage race; just get government funding by selling the race as a way to promote tourism, especially to rural communities. Throw in Alberta’s can-do spirit of volunteerism and support for major international events, and voila! Easy as that.

Never mind that much of the best mountain pavement in the province is located in National Parks, which might not be willing to close roads for a bike race. Or that government funding is notoriously unreliable. Or that there’s almost no culture of bicycle riding, let alone racing, in those rural Alberta communities that were going to form the backbone of the event. (Sorry, Devon.) And that even in Edmonton and Calgary, bike racing is a fringe sport at best. Given these formidable challenges, the Tour of Alberta was a crazy idea.

Yet, somehow, despite those obstacles, Stieda and his gang made it all happen. They secured the funding, found sponsors, and persuaded some big names to come to the race’s kick-off. The fact that the Tour of Alberta ultimately didn’t stick, couldn’t make it over the long run, just makes it the norm, really. History would suggest that professional bike stage racing is a precarious business in North America.      

In fact, several prominent North American stage races have ended up running for five years or so and then dying for the same reason that the Tour of Alberta expired: lack of money. The Tour of Georgia ran from 2003-2008. The USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado existed from 2011-2015. Even the breakthrough Coors Classic that ran from 1980-88 in Colorado, during a boom in American road cycling, eventually just ran out of money.  

Today, the Tour of California is the most successful of the current crop. California is an ideal location. It’s got population density, stunning and diverse scenery, a deep pool of rich corporate sponsors, and one of the strongest cultures of cycling in America. It’s attracted top flight talent in recent years, becoming a legitimate alternative to the Giro for many pros. But even with all that going for it, if something were to happen to its support from title sponsor Amgen, who knows if even the mighty T of C could survive?

Over the years, I’ve offered my share of critical comments on the way the Tour of Alberta was run, but I’ve always been in favor of the concept and have cheered on the event every year. My criticism was always aimed at trying to make the event better. Thinking back now over the last five years, I have many fond memories of the Tour of Alberta.

I’ll never forget the Prologue time trial in Edmonton for the inaugural Tour in 2013. Cycling fans in Edmonton watched in amazement as some of the biggest names in bike racing took to our streets. I stood on the side of the road watching high profile riders like Cadell Evans, Peter Sagan, and Ryder Hesjedal, only a year removed from his Giro victory. It was all a bit surreal.

A bunch of little details stand out: Peter Sagan popping wheelies down the main street of Devon; the look on Sagan’s face when he was presented with a bison-sculpture lamp for winning a stage; the great Canadian Pave experiment of 2014, which caused mayhem on the roads of Strathcona County but which Tom Dumoulin pronounced “cool;” then Dumoulin losing the GC that year by mere seconds on the final stage; scooping up discarded water bottles by Victoria Golf Course with my kids; the muddy mix up in 2015, when pretty much the whole mud-spattered peloton took a wrong turn in Parkland County, setting up a bizarre stage finish; spying Team Jelly Belly out for an early morning ride on my regular south loop; the velothon frenzies of 2016 and 2017, when so many weekend warriors—including a few friends of mine—took over the course for a morning.

The Tour of Alberta was a blast while it lasted. Rather than lament its demise, I choose to celebrate its run. For five years, Alberta cycling fans got to watch pro bike racing in our backyards. Not many Canadians--not many North Americans--can say that.  

1 comment:

  1. I loved that the Tour was here. I wish it could have lasted longer!


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