A day shorter and with fewer division-one teams, the UCI 2.1 Tour of Alberta will head into its fourth year with a leaner start list than in years past and a route that misses the Canadian province's abundant Rocky Mountains, but the four relatively flat road stages combined with the Edmonton time trial should set up a strategic battle for time bonuses and a refreshingly unpredictable race that could favour the cagey opportunists.
Tough times for Alberta's extraction-dependent economy led organisers to cut one stage from the government-subsidized race earlier this year, and the absence of the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado as a lead-in to Alberta this year may have made it difficult to attract more top European teams to North America for five days of racing.
Nevertheless, 2015 winner Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) will bring an experienced and strong team to help him defend the title, while Cannondale-Drapac and a 2016 start list full of young, hungry riders on Pro Continental and Continental teams should provide plenty of animators throughout the race.
Mollema is coming off a rollercoaster ride in July, when he was putting in a podium performance in the Tour de France before a crash knocked him out of the top 10. He rebounded with a win at Classica San Sebastian and then finished 17th in the Olympic road race.
If Mollema doesn't find the course to his liking, Trek-Segafredo can turn to 2013 Giro d'Italia winner and Canadian star Ryder Hesjedal, who earlier this year announced his plans to retire at the end of the season. The team will also field Frank Schleck in one of his final races, along with Julian Arredondo, Gregory Rast and Peter Stetina.
Cannondale-Drapac, the only other WorldTour team in the race, has plenty of weapons to challenge Trek this year. Leading the Cannondale attack will be Canadian Olympian and 2015 Tour of Utah stage winner Michael Woods, two-time Tour of California stage winner Toms Skujins, rising US star Lawson Craddock and journeyman Alex Howes. Both Woods and Skujins finished in the top 10 overall last year.
Among the non-WorldTour riders in the race, 40-year-old Francisco Mancebo will be a top rider to watch. The Spaniard is returning to North America for the first time in three years with the Skydive Dubai team after having raced the US domestic circuit for five years from 2009-2013. The crafty former Grand Tour contender can race on the flats or in the mountains and can pull out a good time trial on occasion.
Aside from late entry Amore & Vita, an Italian-centric team that is registered in the Ukraine, the rest of the start list could be pulled from any top North American domestic or US national calendar race. Jelly Belly-Maxxis will be riding the momentum of the team's recent results at the Tour of Utah, as will Axeon Hagens Berman, which recently had riders Adrien Costa and Neilson Powless achieve big results with the US National Team at Tour de l'Avenir. Canadian team Silber Pro Cycling was represented in every breakaway in last year's race and has been notching top results all season long, while Direct Energie pro Antoine Duchesne will lead the Canadian National Team.
Look for strong performances from the always-aggressive Holowesko-Citadel program, which will have recent Tour of Utah stage winners Travis McCabe and Robin Carpenter. Rally Cycling will focus its GC efforts around Canadian Rob Britton and time trial and breakaway ace Evan Huffman, while Eric Young will target the bunch sprints.
Lupus Racing will be at the start with Chris Horner, while H&R Block, a Canadian team with a criterium focus, will throw a relatively unknown element into the mix.
Stage 1 – Lethbridge Circuit Race, 106.9km
For the 2016 opener, the race returns to Southern Alberta's Lethbridge, which hosted a rain-soaked first stage in 2014 on a similar suburban course. The 2014 circuit in Lethbridge was almost exactly twice as long, with the majority of those extra kilometres spent traversing both sides of a long, flat stretch of a divided boulevard called Scenic Drive in a make-work out-and-back.
The real meat of the 2014 course was the drop off Scenic Drive into lowlands by the – and I'm not making this up – Old Man River. The course meandered through parks along the river and then climbed back to Scenic Drive for a trip through town and the start/finish. Six laps made up 143km of racing that day, which Ruben Zepuntke, riding for Bissell Development Team at the time, won from a reduced bunch in a downpour ahead of now-Cannondale teammate Ramunas Navardauskas.
The 2016 course does away with most of the flat promenade down Scenic Drive and cuts right to the meat of the course. Riders will tackle nine laps of the shorter 12km circuit, which starts in downtown Lethbridge before hitting Scenic Drive and the descent down toward the river. Nine loops of the circuit make up the 106.9km stage.
A successful breakaway could be possible on the circuit, but time bonuses at the finish and a handful of teams with ambitious sprinters will make it hard to stay away.
Stage 2 – Kananaskis to Olds, 182km
It's rare that the day's only KOM comes at a lower elevation than the start, but that's the case with this stage, which starts in the foothills of the Rocky Mountain on the edge of Banff National Park. Despite the scenic start location, however, the race heads immediately east along the bow river toward the KOM, which tops out nearly 100km from the finish. From there the route falls generally downhill as the peloton heads north toward the finish in Olds. The long run to the line should set up the sprinters and their teams quite well.
Stage 3 – Rocky Mountain House to Drayton Valley, 181.2km
This straightforward stage starts in the plains east of Banff and Jasper national parks. The route takes the peloton east before looping back and heading directly north to Drayton Valley, losing elevation all the way. A short steep climb into town leads to the final KOM of the day and three finishing circuits. If the sprinters can make it up the final climb this looks like another day for the fast men.
Stage 4 – Edmonton Individual Time Trial, 12.1km
Time bonuses available each day at the finish and intermediate sprints notwithstanding, this will likely be the most decisive day for the general classification. At just 12.1km, however, the stage 4 individual time trial isn't likely to produce huge time gaps. The route does contain a roughly 2km climb that comes in the last third of the course, but it may be too short for talented climbers like Mollema to take much advantage.
Stage 5 – Edmonton Circuit Race, 124.1km
The Tour of Alberta appears to have found a keeper with the Edmonton circuit race on the final day. The challenging urban course in the heart of the city has served up great crowds and dramatic racing since it was introduced in 2014, the year Daryl Impey (Orica-GreenEdge) unseated Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Shimano) in the overall race by one second after winning the stage and earning a 10-second time bonus. The peloton will start in Winston Churchill square and race 11 laps of the 11.25km circuit that throws multiple twists, turns, descents and short climbs at the riders.