The Canadian province of Alberta has overcome a lot to get to the start of its inaugural namesake UCI stage race this week. Severe flooding in June temporarily displaced more than 100,000 people and left behind a wake of damage measured in billions. Extensive road and bridge damage southwest of Calgary were the biggest obstacles for the bike race.
But in a testament to the can-do attitude prevalent in the rugged Canadian province, which lies north of Montana between British Columbia to the west and Saskatchewan to the east, communities have recovered, roads have been repaired and the race will go on.
The six-day UCI 2.1 Tour of Alberta stage race starts Tuesday evening with a prologue time trial near the middle of the province in Edmonton before making its way south over the next five days toward the finish in Calgary.
Although the routes for four of the five stages remain the same as originally planned, flood damage in the Rocky Mountains forced major changes to the Queen Stage on the penultimate day.
The original plan for stage 4 was to start in Black Diamond and travel 200km northwest through the Rockies to Canmore, ending with a hors category climb to the ski station southeast of Banff National Park. Now the stage will start and finish in Black Diamond with a circuit through the foothills. Although roads in the area have reopened to auto traffic, organizers decided earlier this summer to adjust the route based on rider safety.
With the summit finish in Canmore gone, the race loses its best chance for the climbing specialists to reshuffle the general classification in their favor. The current overall route puts more emphasis on the opening race against the clock in Edmonton and time bonuses collected at the end of each stage.
Evans, Hesjedal, Sagan on hand in Alberta
The race's early September spot on the calendar following the USA Pro Challenge allows it to serve as a bridge to the upcoming World Tour races in Montreal and Quebec, and as such it draws some of the world's top riders and teams. Six WorldTour teams will join two Pro Continental and seven Continental teams over the roads of Alberta this week.
BMC, Garmin Sharp, Cannondale, Argos-Shimano, Belkin and Orica GreenEdge will represent cycling's top division. UnitedHealthcare and Champion System come from the Pro Continental ranks, while Continental teams Bissell, 5-Hour Energy, Equipe Garneau-Quebecor, Jelly Belly, Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies, Smart Stop-Mountain Khakis and the Canadian National Team round out the field.
Cannondale sprinter Peter Sagan, who recently won four of seven stages in Colorado, is the prohibitive favorite for the overall in Canada. With a short prologue time trial and time bonuses up for grabs at the end of each stage, the relatively flat parcours will provide Sagan plenty of opportunities to pad his cumulative time.
Ryder Hesjedal, who became the first Canadian to win a Grand Tour last year at the Giro d'Italia, will head an eight-man Garmin Sharp squad that includes rising star Lachlan Morton and veteran pro David Millar. Hesjedal has been dealing with some lingering aches and pains following a crash in the Tour, but he'll no doubt want to put on good show in his home country.
Cadel Evans, winner of the 2011 Tour de France, will lead a BMC team that also includes Americans Brent Bookwalter and Larry Warbasse. Cam Meyer will bring an Orica GreenEdge team that includes Pieter Weening. Belkin Pro Cycling is bringing 2012 Tour of California winner Robert Gesink of the Netherlnds and Aussie Jack Bobridge on its eight-rider roster. Argos-Shimano has Slovanian sprinter Luca Mezgec along with strongmen Patrick Gretsch and Simon Geschke on its own eight-man squad.
Among the other early contenders for yellow; look for current Canadian national champion Zach Bell, Belkin's Bobridge, Garmin Sharp's Rohan Dennis, BMC's Bookwalter, Gretsch of Argos-Shimano, Meyer of Orica GreenEdge and current US national time trial champion Tom Zirbel (Optum-Kelly Benefits Strategies). Zirbel's teammate, Chad Haga, will also be back in the peloton after taking a rest during the USA Pro Challenge.
The sprinters who failed to unseat Sagan during the bunch sprints in Colorado will get another crack. Optum's Ryan Anderson twice finished on the podium with Sagan. Mezgec of Argos finished second to Sagan twice in Colorado. US national road champion Freddie Rodriguez could be savvy enough to sneak past Sagan if the right circumstances are present. Other sprinters on hand include Optum's Ken Hanson and UnitedHealthcare riders Robert Foster and Luke Keough.
But with Sagan still building his form toward the world championships later in the month, the two-time winner of the points jersey in the Tour de France will be near the top of this game and a real challenge for the opposition.
Prologue Time Trial: Edmonton
Tuesday, Sept. 3
Starting and finishing at Sir Winston Churchill Square in the heart of downtown Edmonton, this tight, technical 7.3km course will take the riders through neighborhoods, a thrilling descent and the climb from the river valley through the Alberta Legislature grounds. The winner will wear the first-ever Tour of Alberta's leader's jersey, and the first pecking order of the week will be set for teams.
Stage 1: Strathcona County - Camrose
Wednesday, Sept. 4
Stage 1 will start in the Strathcona County suburbs just east of Edmonton after a neutral parade around Sherwood Park. The race will head north for a pass through the city of Fort Saskatchewan before turning south to Ardrossan and the scenic lake district and Miquelon Lake Provincial Park. When the race reaches Camrose at 146km, the peloton will negotiate three laps of the tight, twisting 4km finishing circuit for what will likely be the first bunch sprint of the week.
Stage 2: Devon - Red Deer
Thursday, Sept. 5
If Sagan were ever to draw up a perfect stage for himself, it might look like stage 2 from Devon to Red Deer. Riders will get a nice warm up as the race route heads south, passing through the rolling farmland around Leduc, Millet, Wetaskiwin, Hobbema and Ponoka. From there they'll turn west toward Red Deer, where they'll tackle a steep, punchy climb east of town before arriving for the first of three finishing circuits. The 4km finishing circuits include a 30 meter climb that will hurt the sprinters and an 80km/h descent that will reward nerve and handling skills. More than any other stages, this one looks tailor made for the young Slovakian and his skills.
Stage 3: Strathmore - Drumheller
Friday, Sept. 6
Closing in on Calgary now, stage 3 starts just to the east in Strathmore. The plains around Strathmore quickly give way to rolling hills as the race heads east then north through the community of Rosebud. Then it's back to the banks of the Red Deer River in the heart of the Badlands. The short, steep grades along the river could be the launch pads to victory. Drumheller fans get a front row seat for this action as the race will pass through town before doing a large loop north and back into town for a fast finish. This first day in the foothills has the potential to shake up the race standings.
Stage 4: Black Diamond - Black Diamond
Saturday, Sept. 7
Stage 4 was initially scheduled as the Queen Stage, starting in Black Diamond and finishing in the heart of the Rocky Mountains with a 64km ascent to Canmore. But the spring flooding caused too much road damage to use the original route. Instead, organizers have devised a stage that starts and finishes in Black Diamond after a lumpy 170km circuit. The race will head north out of Black Diamond on Alberta 22 and cruise through Turner Valley into the hills. A large 60km circuit gives way to a smaller 40km circuit that is done twice. This smaller circuit is loaded with challenging terrain, including two King of the Mountain climbs and numerous other rollers. What is left of the peloton after these climbs will descend down Alberta 22 to Black Diamond.
Stage 5: Okotoks - Calgary
Sunday, Sept. 8
The hill country west of Okotoks gives one final chance for the climbers, but chances are this stage will be another one for the sprinters. Momentum will build through the flatlands leading into Calgary, and the race should be going full gas along Memorial Drive before crossing the Bow River leading to downtown, where four 3.5km finishing circuits await.