Tom-Jelte Slagter (Cannondale-Drapac) came two places and 28 seconds short of repeating his 2015 Tour of Alberta stage win at Marmot Basin on Friday, finishing third in the opening stage of the four-day race behind Rally Cycling's Evan Huffman and Sepp Kuss, the last survivors of the day's breakaway.
The 162km stage took place entirely within Jasper National Park and was incredibly scenic, but the course didn't offer much in the way of obstacles until the final 14-kilometre climb to the ski area. When a breakaway of 14 that contained two Cannondale riders escaped off the front on the first lap, the green argyle team sat back and left the chasing to teams like Silber Pro Cycling, Elevate-KHS and sometimes Rally.
"For us it was actually a good move, because we had Nate Brown in there and Lawson [Craddock]," Slagter said. "So for us it was two good guys to have in the breakaway. The situation was fine, and we tried to sit behind to save energy and see how the race developed, because it was not up to us to chase our do anything."
As the race developed, things took a turn for the worse for Cannondale as the leaders turned onto the Marmot Basin climb. Huffman attacked the lead group and immediately opened a gap at the bottom of the climb, while Brown, who wore the mountains jersey briefly in the Tour de France earlier this year and was Cannondale's best hope for the stage win from the break, cracked and dropped from the group.
"We just waited and waited until the last climb, and then it was obvious that Nate wouldn't win because he got dropped," Slagter said. "Huffman went off the front and we started racing full gas from the back with the rest of the team that was there."
Fatigue in the breakaway and an increased tempo in the chase soon brought the remnants of the move into sight, and Slagter launched his move in the final kilometres, sweeping up all but two of the escapees on his way to the summit.
"In the end I was waiting until the moment I thought I could make a gap and do like a full sprint to the finish," he said. "So I went at two kilometres to go, but unfortunately it was not enough for the win. So I'm happy with the legs and the condition, but the result could have been better."
Despite not getting the result he or the team wanted, Slagter told Cyclingnews he doesn't believe Cannondale-Drapac did anything wrong tactically as the race unfolded.
"In the end, I think we didn't do anything wrong, because we were hoping Nate would finish the job and it looked like he would for a long time," Slagter said. "So at the point we started chasing, Huffman was also going really well and super fast, so credit to him on this result."
Huffman now has a 15-second advantage over his teammate Kuss and a 28 second gap to Slagter. UnitedHealthcare's Chris Jones is 30 seconds in arrears, while Aevolo's Jack Burke is down 32 seconds.
The remaining three stages are more suited to sprint finishes, which means unless the other teams can pull off a GC raid in a breakaway that stays away, the only way to topple Huffman from the podium's top step is to accumulate time bonuses in the intermediate sprints and in the finishes. It's a tall order for GC riders.
"It will be difficult, but we have to sit together and talk about the tactics and see where we can do something, but I don't know now yet," Slagter said. "We have a good team. Wouter [Wippert] can win stages here hopefully in the sprints, so that's where we are working for, for now.
"A lot can happen," he said. "We need to have good tactics every day, so we'll see what happens."