The six-day UCI 2.1 race starts with a 4km mostly uphill prologue time trial in the former Olympic ski jumping and bobsled venue. The opening test starts on relatively flat roads before climbing more than 100 meters over six switchbacks in the final 1.3km. If the overall battle unfolds similar to last year's race, the prologue could play a huge role in the final general classification.
“It's definitely complicated, for sure,” Garmin-Sharp's Tom Danielson said at Monday's pre-race press conference. “The first part is downhill, then there's a little bit of a roller and then uphill all the way to the finish. You're going to have to put together a really complete ride. It favors a guy like Tom [Dumoulin], who can do all of the things above really well. But it also gives opportunity to a guy like myself, who normally wouldn't be very good four-kilometer prologue athlete. It gives me an opportunity to have a dream or two that I could be up there.”
Dumoulin, the Dutch national time trial champion who so far this year has won time trials at the Eneco Tour and the Criterium international and was second in the Tour de France time trial in July, agreed that the course suited him well.
“It's really short,” he said. “But I think for me personally it's a good course. It has everything: some difficult corners, some flat, some uphill, which I can normally do well. So I'm looking forward to tomorrow.”
Another contender for a possible prologue win is Jelly Belly-Maxxis rider Serghei Tvetcov, who recently finished third overall at the USA Pro Challenge and was third in the Vail time trial there. Tvetcov had not yet previewed the course, but he said it looks like a challenge.
“I only saw it on paper, but it looks pretty hard,” he said. “It's going to be really challenging to do both flat and uphill, so we'll see.”
Dumoulin said he expected small time gaps coming out of the prologue heading into Wednesday's first stage.
“Hopefully large,” he said when asked about potential time splits. “But I don't think so. It's only going to be like five-and-a-half minutes, maybe six, and I don't expect time gaps to be bigger than a few seconds.”
The second edition of the race will feature five WorldTour teams, one Pro Continental squad and nine Continental teams. Garmin-Sharp returns this year to defend last year's overall win by Rohan Dennis, who transferred to BMC earlier this year and will not be at the race. Instead Garmin will feature Ramunas Navardauskas and Danielson.
Dennis won the race's inaugural edition last year ahead of BMC's Brent Bookwalter and Cannondale's Damiano Caruso. BMC won't be at Alberta this year; the team's Cadel Evans, a stage winner last year, is racing at the Vuelta alongside Dennis. Cannondale's Peter Sagan, winner of two stages and the prologue last year, is also at the Vuelta this year with Caruso.
In all, more than a dozen riders that figured into last year's Tour of Alberta are currently competing at the Vuelta. The teams that did make the trip appear to have prepared squads set up for sprint finishes or for battering through crosswinds.
“We've got a team for the fast finishes,” said Matthew Goss of Orica-GreenEdge. “We've got Leigh [Howard], myself, and we're fortunate to have Daryl Impey back for this race as well, so he's a huge asset. We've definitely got the guys here that if it comes to a fast finish we should have our noses somewhere close to the front.”
Both Dennis and Bookwalter placed well in last year's Edmonton prologue, which Sagan won in just over eight minutes. The difference-maker in last year's overall race turned out to be a sweeping wind that blew across the southern Alberta plains during stage 3 from Strathmore to Drumheller. Crosswinds wreaked havoc on the race, splitting the field into multiple echelons and blowing apart the race for yellow.
Dennis and Bookwalter made the front group of 17, which also included Belkin's Robert Gesink, Cannondale's Damiano Caruso, Argos-Shimano's Patrick Gretsch and Bookwalter's BMC teammate Steve Morabito. With then-race leader Sagan's Cannondale team happy to let the front group containing Caruso roll away, the leaders built and advantage of more than 16 minutes before Dennis led a select group of six across the line under the watchful eye of Drumheller's massive Dinosaur-shaped amusement ride.
Dennis took the overall lead there along with his stage win, while Bookwalter grabbed second on the day and moved to second in the general classification. Caruso's spot in the breakaway moved him into third overall. The remnants of the breakaway finished nine seconds down on the leaders, and the main field limped in 16:48 behind. The top 16 spots in the final general classification were decided that day.
2014 Tour of Alberta route
Although similar in nature to last year's inaugural route, the 2014 race will run in the opposite direction, starting in the south with the Calgary prologue and concluding in the center of the province with a circuit race in Edmonton.
Stage 1 will take riders southeast of Calgary to Lethbridge for a 142km circuit race. The peloton will face six hilly laps that include the Stafford Drive climb and its 15 per cent grade. More climbing over the next 5.5km to the finish could knock the pure sprinters out of this stage finale, although it could be perfect for recent USA Pro Challenge stage winner Kiel Reijnen (UnitedHealthcare).
The peloton will transfer north of Calgary for the second stage's 145km run from Innisfall to Red Deer. The route will take the riders twice around Sylvan Lake before heading for three difficult finishing circuits in downtown Red Deer.
During the 2013 race, BMC stagiaire Silvan Dillier and Jelly Belly-Maxxis rider Serghei Tvetcov held off the charging field on the same Red Deer circuits, which include three trips over the punchy climb up 55th Street. Look for the breakaway opportunists to try again on this stage, but if the sprinters' teams missed out on stage 1 they'll be hungry for a bunch kick here.
Although stages 1 and 2 could favor a breakaway, Friday's 158km stage 3 route from Wetaskiwin to Edmonton looks like a sure bet for a mass sprint. The course includes no categorized climbs and offers just one sprint about 51km into the day. The last half of the route is generally downhill before the stage finishes on an airstrip at the Edmonton Garrison. On paper the day looks tailor made for the fast finishers, but if the winds kick up like they did during stage 3 last year, anything could happen and the general classification could get a major reshuffling.
The stage 4 run from Edmonton to Strathcona County will be a test of toughness, as the winding course contains six sections of “Canadian Pavé” and three sections of dust-controlled gravel roads that total about 5km. The stage finishes in Strathcona County on the tightest and shortest closing circuit of the week. The conditions may provide a challenge, but if the sprinters can handle the bumps, this stage – chances for wind not withstanding – should provide another opportunity for a bunch finish.
For Sunday's conclusion, the Tour of Alberta will take over the streets of downtown Edmonton with a 121km circuit race. The peloton will traverse 11 laps of an 11km circuit that features the short-but-steep climb up Bellamy Hill Road, which played a starring role in last year's prologue. The ensuing descent to the riverfront is followed by another climb back to the start/finish in the city center.
The GC will likely already be decided by then, but the rest of the peloton will still be fighting to decide if the repeated trips up Bellamy Hill and 107th Street will produce a successful final breakaway, another select sprint or a full-on bunch gallop.