The wide-open 2016 Tour of Alberta has winnowed the GC contenders down to a just handful of riders, with one second standing between overall leader Robin Carpenter (Holowesko-Citael) and 2015 winner Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), and less than a minute separating the top eight riders.
Carpenter seized control of the race on Sunday during the stage 4 time trial in Edmonton, while Mollema won the stage and climbed from fifth to second. Former leader Evan Huffman (Rally Cycling) is third, seven seconds back. Now the final circuit race in Edmonton is set to decide the overall, just as it did in 2014 when Daryl Impey won the stage and the 10-second time bonus that pushed him past Tom Dumoulin by one second.
The downtown Edmonton circuit is 11 laps of a 11.1km circuit that is twisty, technical and features two short, punchy climbs. It is notoriously hard to defend a lead on the route, but Carpenter and his Holowesko-Citadel team have shown no signs of being intimidated by the WorldTour rider that is sitting just one second behind.
"I'm super confident," Carpenter said when asked about his attitude going into Monday's stage.
The 24-year-old from Philadelphia has good reason to feel that way. In four stages this week, Carpenter has only finished off the podium once, when he finished in the field on stage 2.
As Carpenter pointed out in the stage 4 press conference, however, Mollema has timed his rise perfectly, saving his energy for the time trial and Monday's finale, and placing himself in prime position to repeat his 2015 win.
"I'm close, but it's still a hard day tomorrow with a lot of climbs, short climbs but we will see," Mollema said after stage 4. "It's not going to be easy, because Robin is riding very strong this week and he's very fast in the sprint. There are still bonification seconds at the finish line and halfway, so I think we will make a good plan tonight for tomorrow."
Carpenter’s and Holowesko's plan is to race aggressively and use his experienced teammates to help keep him on the podium's top step at the end of the day.
"It's always easier to defend the lead from the front," Carpenter said. "We've got a lot of strong guys. I think we put four guys in the top 12 [during the time trial], so that's obvious, and we've got smart guys, too. We've got team captain Oscar Clark, who defended many a race a race lead for [Francisco] Mancebo back in the day on RealCyclist, so he's got a ton of experience doing that. He knows what he's doing, and I've got all the confidence in the world that he'll be able to coach me through the day and make sure I don't do anything too stupid too early."
Despite Carpenter's confidence, he and his Continental team are going to have a tough day in the saddle keeping an eye on multiple threats. Not only will they have to worry about Mollema and Trek-Segafredo, they'll also have to watch Huffman and riders from five other teams that are a minute or less behind.
Huffman said he expects a very aggressive race that will be intense form the starting gun to the finish line.
"Time gaps are close, and it's the last day, so no one is going to be holding anything back," he said. "I think it's going to be almost like a one-day race."
That may actually play into the hands of Holowesko, which has proven itself to be one of the top one-day teams in North America. The team also has experience defending stage races on tough courses, however, like it did in 2014 when Toms Skujins [now with Cannondale-Drapac] won Canada's Tour de Beauce in 2014.
Holowesko-Citadel director Thomas Craven told Cyclingnews on Sunday that his team is ready to take control of the race.
"We've won a bunch of races similar to tomorrow – like at [Tour de] Beauce," he said. "Obviously the fields are different, but I think that we've got a team that's protected multiple times to be able to win a race. Robin just won Cascade [Cycling Classic] a month ago on the last day.
"Beauce was the same sort of ordeal with Toms, so we'll take charge," Craven said. "I'm not scared to try and win the race. That's what we came here to do. I told a couple of people who asked, 'What do you expect?' Well, we're going to win."