Canada may never have been a major cycling country but in recent years the country has established itself as a force to be reckoned with in the cycling world. In less than two weeks, some of the world’s best riders will battle it out for WorldTour points in the GP Quebec and Montreal and this week some of the contenders will warm up their legs in the newly established Tour of Alberta. As the biggest stage race in the country, it hasn’t found a fixed formula yet and this year the time triallists are likely to battle it out for the overall honours.
For a number of years, it almost appeared as being a certainty that the first North American race on the WorldTour would be the ever-growing and ambitious Tour of California. With UCI eager to globalize the sport and expand the pinnacle calendar to cover races on most continents, it would just be a question of time before the American stage race would put North America on the biggest scene.
However, the Californian race never got the honour of becoming the first event on the continent to join the exclusive club of WorldTour races. Despite his country not being among the sport’s powerhouses, Canadian race promoter Serge Arsenault who has a long history of organizing bike races, planned to put Canada in the cycling spotlight by organizing two WorldTour one-day races and in 2009 quickly reached an agreement with the UCI that awarded his races in Quebec and Montreal 5-year licenses as WorldTour events. Despite several European races' year-long request to get onto the biggest calendar, Arsenault's brand-new project got immediate recognition, UCI being eager to spread their WorldTour calendar to a third continent as fast as possible.
The inaugural events were held in 2010 and since then cycling in Canada has been growing. It culminated when Ryder Hesjedal won the 2012 Giro d’Italia and in recent years, there have been several Canadian professionals in Europe. The country also had its own ambitious pro continental team, Spidertech, which planned to join the WorldTour ranks. Unfortunately, those plans had to be abandoned and the squad folded but no one can question that cycling in Canada is on the rise.
It was only a question of time before the country would get its first big stage race. For years, the Tour de Beauce has been one of the biggest races in North America but as a 2.2 race, it hasn’t attracted any WorldTour teams. In the USA, there have been lots of regional tours at the 2.1 and 2.HC level and even though most of them have again disappeared, it was obvious that the Canadians were going to have similar plans.
It all became reality in 2013 when the first edition of the Tour of Alberta was held. It is the brainchild of former professional cyclist Alex Steida, who was the first North American cyclist to wear the Yellow Jerseyin the Tour de France. After moving to Edmonton, Steida felt that the local geography made the province an ideal place for a multi-stage race and he spent nearly a decade promoting the idea. The idea began to take shape in 2012 when proponents secured support from the Rural Alberta Development Fund, which believed such a race could promote the province to a world audience. The proposed race was sanctioned by UCI in late 2012 and given a 2.1 classification, making it one of the highest rated events on the UCI America Tour.
The plan was to fill a natural void in the calendar. All WorldTour teams are obliged to race in Quebec and Montreal and so many were keen to get more out of the long trip across the Atlantic. With the Tour of Utah and USA Pro Challenge taking place earlier in August, there was a gap to be filled and the Tour of Alberto nicely fitted into the slot between the American stage races and the Canadian one-day races.
Unfortunately, the USA Pro Challenge has now disappeared and the synergy is no longer as obvious as it once was. However, the race remains an obvious preparation race for the Canadian classics which take place just one week after the conclusion of the race in Alberta.
However, it seems that the big teams have not really accepted the idea. Coming at a busy time during the Vuelta where there are numerous big one-day races in Europe and rival stage races like the Tour of Britain and the Tour des Fjords, the race has never got the field that many were hoping for. This year the race in Norway has made the competition even tougher and unfortunately, the Canadian race stands out as the big loser as Cannondale and Trek will be the only WorldTour teams in attendance and 10 of the 13 teams will be from the continental level or a national team.
Alberta is a beautiful region and the race is known for its stunning scenery and very cold conditions. The race is relatively new and so hasn’t found a fixed format. Alberta has many windy plains but also has some hillier parts. The first two editions lacked any major climbs and were suited to strong sprinters and classics riders but last year the race headed into the mountains and became a race for puncheurs and climbers. This year the race won’t face any major climbs but the addition of the first longer individual time trial will add a new complexity to the race.
Last year Bauke Mollema took the first stage race win of his pro career. The Dutchman benefited from a strong win from Trek in the opening team time trial and even though he couldn’t match Tom-Jelte Slagter in the two uphill finishes, it was enough to win the race with a 6-second advantage over Adam Yates and 22 second over Slagter. Mollema will be back to defend his title.
As said, the race is a new event and it hasn’t found a fixed formula. The first two editions were characterized by wind, cold, short climbs and sprints and were turned into a battle of seconds between sprinters and puncheurs. Last year the race experimented with its nature as two of the six stages had uphill finishes and there was a crucial opening team time trial. Furthermore, the race has become known for its use of gravel roads.
This year the organizers have tried a new format. In the first two years, the race had a prologue but this year the race will have its first longer time trial. There will be no return to the mountains and the road stages are all lumpy affair marked by short climbs and a return of the gravel roads. This means that the race will be very similar to what it was in its first two years but the addition of a real TT will of course turn it into a race most suited to time triallists who can be up there in the windy conditions and handle the explosive climbs.
Stages 1 and 5 are held on lumpy circuits that can suit puncheurs or strong sprinters while stages 2 and 3 should be more straightforward bunch sprint even though there are gravel roads on the course for the third day. The key time trial comes on the penultimate day.
In 2014, the race kicked off with a circuit race in Lethbridge and this stage will be back for the 2016 edition of the race. On the first day, the riders will kick the race off by doing 9 laps of an 11.7km circuit for an overall distance of 106.9km. The circuit has a flat start before a small descent leads to the bottom of a short, steep climb whose top comes just 3.7km from the finish. From the top, it’s a flat run to the finish with a very technical finale that has several turns inside the final kilometre. There will be KOM points on offer on the second, fourth and sixth lap and intermediate sprints at the third and sixth passage of the line.
When the stage was last used in 2014, the group split on the climb and only 36 riders survived, with the pure sprinters being left behind. It came down to a reduced bunch sprint that was won by Ruben Zepuntke and it should be more of the same this time. However, the circuit isn’t easy and in a race without many strong teams, the best climbers may be able to make a difference already on the first day.
If they were left disappointed in the first stage, the sprinters hope to get their revenge in stage 2. The 182km from Kananaskis to Olds consists of a long downhill run for most of the day. However, there’s a solid challenge at the midpoint when the riders tackle a rather tough climb but the top come with 96.5km to go. From there, it’s a gradual descent until the road gradually flattens out for the final 30km, with the sprint being slightly uphill.
The climb at the midpoint is the hardest of the race but it comes way too early to make a difference. The wind is always a big danger in these areas and we may see some crosswind action. If that’s the case, it could become a key stage but otherwise it should be a straightforward bunch sprint.
One of the key features of the race is the use of dirt roads. In 2016, the gravel section will come on stage 3 where the riders will travel 181.2km from Clearwater County to Drayton Valley. The terrain is predominantly flat and only includes two small climbs, one at the 31.4km mark and one just before the finishing circuit with 20.1km to go. There will be a total amount of 7km of gravel. In the end, the riders will do three laps of a very technical, flat circuit.
Like in stage 2, the wind is the main danger in this stage and the gravel roads will create some nervousness too. The combination could make it a tough race but if it’s a calm day, it should be another pretty straightforward stage for the sprinters.
The novelty of this year’s race is the addition of a real time trial instead of the prologue and team time tral that has been used in the past. At 12.1km, it’s a pretty short stage but in a race decided by seconds it is likely to be crucial. It is held in the city of Edmondton and is made up of long, straight roads without any major technical challenges. However, there’s a pretty tough climb of almost 2km after 7km of racing befoe the riders turn around and descend to the flat finish.
This is the key stage of the race and the day when the time gaps can really be created. In such a short test, the differences will still be small but it’s still where the race is likely to be decided. Most of the stage suits the specialists but the steep climb should suit the punchier guys. Nonetheless, you need very good TT skills to excel on this course even though it will be tackled on road bikes.
In 2014 and 2015, the race finished on the same circuit in Edmonton and it will be no different in 2016. This year the riders will tackle the 11.9km circuit eleven times for an overall distance of 121km. It’s definitely not a flat affair as it includes two small climbs, one of them coming just around 1km from the top. Furthermore, it has a very technical finale with numerous turns inside the final kilometre. There will be bonus seconds on offer at the finish on laps 4 and 8 while the first climb offers KOM points on laps 3, 6 and 9.
As said, the circuit has already been used twice and so most know what to expect. It was the scene of an exciting battle in 2014 when Daryl Impey won the reduced bunch sprint and so picked up enough bonus seconds to deny Tom Dumoulin the overall win at the very end. Last year it was Nikias Arndt who won the sprint. History shows that the GC riders usually try to attack on the climbs in a final attempt to change things but they have not been hard enough to create much of a selection. Every year it has come down to a sprint and it is likely that it will be the same in the 2015 edition of the race.
The 2016 Tour of Alberta will be very different from last year’s race. In 2015, the race was decided on the climbs and in the team time trial but this year climbing skills are not important at all. There are some small climbs on the circuits in stages 1 and 5 but history shows that it is almost impossible to make a difference. This year the field is weaker so there may be more opportunities, especially because none of the WorldTour teams have any sprinters and want to ride aggressively. This could make the race a bit more open and it’s not impossible that a small group can make a difference. On paper, however, it should be four sprints and a time trial.
The weather is always a key issue in this race and the wind can potentially change the script completely. However, the first two stages will take place in summer conditions. Friday will be wet and a bit windier but probably not enough to make a real difference. The weekend will be windy but in those stages it won’t play much of a role as it’s the days of the time trial and a city circuit race.
Hence, we expect the race to come down to a battle of bonus seconds and gains in the time trial and of course the latter will be the most important. As none of the sprinters are good time triallists, there is a very big chance that the winner of the time trial will be the overall winner too.
Nonetheless, the race is very open as there are no real TT specialists here and there is no clear favourite for the TT. However, we will put our money on defending champion Bauke Mollema. He may not be a TT specialist but in this field he could be the strongest. His time trial at the Tour de France proved how much he has progressed and he should find the course with the small climb to his liking. Furthermore, he is pretty fast in a sprint so he may go for bonus seconds in the intermediate sprints. He is also the best climber in the race so he will be able to follow all attacks and he is backed by a very strong team that will be able to set him up for the win. His form is uncertain as he hasn’t raced since the Olympics but he is usually good at this time of the year. Hence, Mollema is our favourite to win the race.
On paper, Lawson Craddock is maybe an even better time triallist but the young American has been very inconsistent. However, he has really improved a lot in 2016 and he was flying in the spring. He hasn’t raced since the Tour so his form is also a bit of a question mark but on paper he is one of the best for a lumpy TT like this. He was seventh in the California TT and if he can deliver a similar performance, he may win the race. Furthermore, he is backed by a strong team and he will be there if the race turns out to be more selective than expected.
Holowesko have Robin Carpenter. The American is one of the best domestic rider in the US and he has been in great form recently. He won a stage in Utah and the Cascade Classic overall so his form is obviously excellent. He was second in the time trial in Beauce and fourth in the Tour of the Gila and in California he was in the top 15. He is likely to be in better form than some of the bigger riders and can definitely win both the TT and the overall.
Silber have a very strong team with several cards to play. Their best option id Canadian TT champion Ryan Roth who beat specialists Hugo Houle and Svein Tuft to take the title. This shows that he can mix it up with the best in a TT but he had probably preferred a longer stage.
Roth’s teammates Alexander Cataford and Matteo Dal-Cin should also be strong in the time trial. Both have had a bit of a breakthrough season and have performed well in time trials, most notably at the Tour of the Gila. This is the highlight of their season so they must be in good form.
Rally are here with Rob Britton who has just finished fifth overall in Utah and so is in great form. Last year he did some amazing time trials but this year he has not been at the same level in the TTs. Furthermore, he would probably have preferred a longer course. However, if he can do a TT like he did in Colorado last year, he will be very competitive.
Amore e Vita go into the race with Marlen Zmorka who is a great TT talent. He has mixed it up in many TTs at the U23 level and he is one of the few specialists here. However, he is untested at this level.
Ryder Hesjedal would love to win what could be the final stage race of his career. However, the course doesn’t suit him and he is unlikely to win the TT. However, he could still have a good ride and there is little doubt that he will attack a lot. In an uncontrollable race, he may be able to ride away in a small group.
Unitedhealthcare have Marco Canola and Daniel Eaton. The latter is a TT specialist but he has not really been at his best this year. The former is one of the fastest riders here, especially in the tougher races, but he needs a lot of bonus seconds to have enough of a buffer for the TT.
In addition to Andrea Palini and John Murphy, Travis McCabe is the best sprinter here. He is suited to this kind of hilly course and could potentially take a few stage wins, especially on the harder days. He time trials much better than Palini and Murphy so he may get enough bonus seconds to win the race. Guillaume Boivin will have similar plans. He is a better time triallist than the American but he is not as fast. Silber’s Kristoffer Dahl is another fast rider who may build enough of a buffer to defend his position in the TT.
Kristijan Koren was once a very good time triallist but he has not done a good TT recently. In this field, however, he should be competitive. Finally, we will point to youngsters Andzs Flaksis and Eddie Dunbar who have both shown some promise in past TTs.
***** Bauke Mollema
**** Lawson Craddock, Robin Carpenter
*** Ryan Roth, Rob Britton, Alexander Cataford, Matteo Dal-Cin, Marlen Zmorka
** Ryder Hesjedal, Marco Canola, Daniel Eaton, Travis McCabe, Kristijan Koren, Andzs Flaksis, Kristoffer Dahl, Eddie Dunbar, Guillaume Boivin
* Danny Pate, Evan Huffman, Bruno Langlois, Antoine Duchesne, Francisco Mancebo, Andrea Palini, Ben Perry, Phil Gaimon, Jordan Cheyne, Justin Oien
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