Team SmartStop p/b Mountain Khakis has been confirmed as the second team, along with WorldTour squad Garmin-Sharp, invited to the inaugural Tour of Alberta, a UCI 2.1-ranked stage race taking place September 3-8, 2013 in the Canadian province.
While Garmin-Sharp's inclusion was a natural, marquee choice for the race promoters, featuring champion Canadian Ryder Hesjedal, the 2012 Giro d'Italia winner, the North Carolina-based UCI Continental squad, too, has a Canadian connection both in the opportunity on offer for an Alberta-based espoir rider plus the team owner Jamie Bennett's multi-generational roots in the province of Alberta.
Team SmartStop p/b Mountain Khakis and the race organisers have collaborated to create the Making the Tour program, which will provide a roster spot on the US squad for the Tour of Alberta to the best-placed U23 Alberta rider at the Banff National Park Bike Fest, taking place June 13-16. In addition to contesting the Tour of Alberta, the U23 Canadian will join the US squad as a stagiaire for the latter portion of the season.
Getting a Tour of Alberta invitation, a stage race expected to attract several WorldTour squads as a race opportunity between Colorado's USA Pro Challenge (August 19-25) and the one-day WorldTour events in Québec (September 13) and Montreal (September 15), is a landmark opportunity for Team SmartStop p/b Mountain Khakis, a team seeking to grow its program from its criterium-based origins.
"We've been wanting to evolve our program, we've always been a one foot in front of the other sort of program, and have been building up some great industry sponsors and some great financial sponsors," team owner Jamie Bennett told Cyclingnews. "Now that we've got all of that ground covered we're at the point where we want to take on some stage racing. We've been such a crit-centric team, which definitely provides value to our sponsors, but I don't think people realize that we're trying to develop this program into something more. We've been vying for this for a while.
"Trying to get in a first-year Medalist event, which is in line with the three great North American tours, is a good fit for us. We've been working with the promoter to try to figure out a way to be creative and provide some value to them and get us started on some of those big, TV-covered races."
An added bonus for Bennett at the Tour of Alberta is his family's roots in the province. "On my mother's side of the family a lot of these towns that the race goes through I've got relatives in: Camrose, Red Deer and of course Alberta, Edmonton and Calgary.
"My family goes back there several generations and it's kind of neat to go home and have this as our team's first big race and kind of a re-tooling of our program. It's something we've been strategically trying to do now for the second half of this season."
Criteriums have been Team SmartStop p/b Mountain Khakis's bread and butter for the past several seasons, with four straight individual and team titles in the USA Crits series plus second place overall on both the individual and team standings for 2012's inaugural National Criterium Calendar (NCC). The team recently wrapped up a strong showing at the USA Crits Speed Week series in the southeastern US and won their first NCC event of the year in California courtesy of Shane Kline at the Dana Point Grand Prix of Cycling. Preparation for the Tour of Alberta, however, is on the horizon.
"We've divided the season up into two halves and the first half we needed to keep everybody happy with regard to what our expectations were and in the second half we're stretching our expectations" said Bennett. "We know it's a growth year, but you've got to start somewhere. We would like to think that some of these stages [at the Tour of Alberta], especially with a short prologue and some of the flatter potential sprint finishes, we can make an impact on the race. We lack a climber for the one mountainous day, but think we can be effective on all the other stages.
"And being able to bring a local U23 champion to the event also says something about our roots being a developmental, opportunistic program. We've always believed that giving people opportunities is the key to getting the most out of them, and we've always looked for kind of a wild card performance from some of our athletes, and it's kind of neat to be able to do that with a local Canadian national as well.
"Our intention is to be able to designate some of the athletes on our program for this roster starting essentially June 1 and we'll be tailoring our race calendar to getting them ready for Alberta. There are also a lot of great athletes out there who do not have a UCI contract and we're hoping that maybe we can pick up a new hire between now and then as well that may help strengthen our squad."