The relatively flat parcour of the 2014 Tour of Alberta, which starts Tuesday evening with a four-km prologue time trial in Calgary, looks tailor-made for a week of fast finishes for the sprinters. But all that could change if the winds whip across the Southern Alberta plains.
Last year's race was blown apart during stage three when severe crosswinds moved in and shattered the peloton into multiple echelons. A front group of 17 riders eventually formed and finished nearly 17 minutes ahead of the field, establishing the final places in the general classification.
Rohan Dennis, riding for Garmin-Sharp at the time, was the main beneficiary of the winds, taking over the race lead during stage three and holding it all the way to the finish. Although the course has switched directions this year, running south to north, both the organizers and the riders are expecting the winds and weather to make another appearance this year.
The weather for Tuesday's opening prologue time trial could be a wet and forecasts for the stage one circuit race in Lethbridge predict steady winds and a likelihood of rain, which could throw the race into disarray from the beginning. Chances for heavy winds also look good on stages two and four, which travel from south to the north toward Edmonton.
Nevertheless, the sprinters expect to get plenty of opportunities to shine this week.
“Like most of the teams here, we've got some guys who can win in most the scenarios of this race,” said Orica-GreenEdge sprinter Matthew Goss.
“So we've got to sit down and work out which riders are going to target which stages. But we've got someone who can kind of do everything for each stage that's here. And there are three or four of us sprinters here on the team, so it might be a case of us mixing it up and seeing who's doing well on each day.”
Giant-Shimano's Tom Dumoulin, considered a favorite for the prologue win, said his team is also ready for anything, including a tight GC battle.
“Of course we have Jonas Ahlstrand for the sprints,” Dumoulin said.
“So we're looking forward to it. I think the race might be more open [than 2013]. It's shorter than last year. I'm not sure if the stages were as hard last year as they are this year. So I think we'll find it will be more open.”
Belkin is also prepared for the exposed parcours, substituting sprinter Theo Bos at the last minute for climber and general classification rider Bauke Mollema.
North American teams packed with flatlanders
Most of the Continental teams in the race are stacked with flatlanders. Optum Pro Cycling, which grabbed a stage win in Utah with sprinter Eric Young, has Brad Huff and Ryan Anderson, who won the jersey for best Canadian last year.
“This race suits us a bit better than maybe a race like last week in Colorado,” Anderson said. “I think we brought the best team we could to the event, so we'll see how it goes. I think the prologue will be a bit tighter this year. But I'm pretty confident we'll get at least one day where the winds will be a big factor in the race. Maybe it won't blow apart quite as bad as last year, but I think it will definitely happen at some point.”
Team SmartStop is loaded with finishing talent, including Jure Kocjan, who won the points jersey in Utah, Travis McCabe, Canadian Zach Bell and US pro champion Eric Marcottte. Bissell Development Team has Tanner Putt and Nicholai Brochner, who was fifth in the final Alberta bunch sprint last year. Hincapie Sportswear Development Team has Ty Magner for the fast finishes, and Jelly Belly has Freddie Rodriguez and Jacob Rathe.
Jelly Belly's Serghei Tvetcov, who is also a candidate for the overall, finished third during a bunch sprint in Colorado and shouldn't be counted out.
“The team will try to be aggressive and put on a good show,” Tvetcov said of his team's plans for the week ahead.
Continental team 5-hour Enery/Kenda didn't bring any bunch sprinters, but Bobby Sweeting, who finished sixth overall last year, is back from injury and should be rested and motivated.
UnitedHealthcare, the only Pro Continental outfit in the race, is also stacked heavily with fast finishers. The team has at its disposal Alessandro Bazzana, Robert Forster and Kiel Reijnen, who won the opening stage in Colorado. Although Bazzana and Forster are pure bunch sprinters, Reijnen excels in sprints from smaller, more select groups.
“It's an unpredictable race with the wind and the hard circuits,” Reijnen said. “It can get really tactical really quickly. But I don't plan on losing any seconds if I don't have to. I think in the end it will probably come down to that last day, so it's important to position yourself right heading into that last day. I think the prologue will be very telling.”
Navardauskas and Danielson lead Garmin-Sharp
The sprinters' plans for glory could ultimately be foiled if the crosswinds tear things apart. Garmin-Sharp's Ramunas Navardauskas was tapped by teammate Tom Danielson as the type of rider who could benefit from a difficult race through the Southern Alberta winds.
“We've got this Ramunas guy here,” Danielson said, motioning toward his teammate at the pre-race press conference. “I don't know if you've ever seen him action, but he's pretty scary. If you can't pull through after he pulls through, he pushes you. So he'll pull through and then push you while he pulls through. So it looks like you pulled through and then he'll pull through again."
“...He's a bad dude,” Danielson continued. “So I'm pretty excited to have him on our team. So either he has yellow or one of us has yellow and he's pulling. That's our strategy.”
Navardauskas, who had five top-10 finishes during this year's Tour de France, including a win during stage 19, said his team is ready to race, and they'll take it day by day.
“It's not always about whether the parcour suit you or not, it's about whether you are stronger than the other guys,” Navardauskas said. “It's difficult to say before a race how you are going to be in the end. So we'll just take it day by day and see how it goes.”