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Stage set for Tour of Alberta time trial showdown

From the start of the Tour of Alberta on Thursday, all eyes have been focused on Sunday's stage 4 time trial as the day that will likely decide the general classification.

Now that the day has arrived, 10 riders separated by 31 seconds will battle on their road bikes for the overall lead on a 12.1km course at a venue shared by the Edmonton ITU Triathlon. Once the triathletes have finished, Rally Cycling's Jesse Anthony will be the first rider to roll out of the start gate at 5:15 p.m. local time.

After three days of racing, Anthony's teammate, Evan Huffman, leads the general classification by two seconds over Robin Carpenter (Holowesko-Citadel) and 10 seconds over stage 1 winner and previous race leader Colin Joyce (Axeon Hagens Berman). Cannondale-Drapac's Alex Howes is fourth, 17 seconds down, followed by 2015 Tour of Alberta winner Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) in fifth at 18 seconds back.

The rest of the top 10 includes Alex Cataford (Silber Pro Cycling), Daniel Eaton (UnitedHealthcare), Antoine Duchesne (Canada), Angus Morton (Jelly Belly-Maxxis) and Silber's Nigel Ellsay. The time gap to 11th-placed rider Tyler Williams (Axeon Hagens Berman) is 2:16.

The 10-rider battle for the general classification was set up on the opening day when a group of 11 riders finished more than two minutes up on the field. Skydive Dubai's Francisco Mancebo was initially among the leaders after the opening day, but he struggled on stages 2 and 3 and now sits second-to-last, nearly 29 minutes down.

Huffman, who seized the race lead with a stage win Saturday in Drayton Valley, is an accomplished time trialist who won the US under-23 national title in 2012 before spending two years with Astana and a year with US Continental team SmartStop. He moved to Rally this year.

Normally Huffman is an ace on his aerodynamic time trial machine, but coming off of racing at altitude last month at the Tour of Utah, the 26-year-old rider from California, who won the Tour of California's climber's jersey earlier this year, may actually benefit from competing in the time trial on standard road bikes.

"I think being on road bikes makes it a little bit interesting," he said. "It depends on the wind, but I think it will be close. I would imagine the top 10 will all be within 30 seconds."

Carpenter, who moved into second overall after joining Huffman in a late two-rider move that gained a handful of seconds on the field in Drayton Valley, said using road bikes for the time trial could shake things up dramatically and even lead to some surprises.

"It's going to be more interesting because of the road bikes, because some guys are better on time trial bikes because of the position, or they don't lose as many watts in the time trial position versus the roads bikes, so you might see some surprises out there as to who's up there just compared to regular time trials or regular prologues with time trial bikes," he said.

"But I think I favour my chances. I feel fit, and we've got good equipment, so I'm looking forward to having a good crack at it. I think Evan's a good racer and he's really fit right now. Even if the gaps open up a little bit more tomorrow, I think the last stage will be really fun to watch, a good spectacle."

Mollema is a bit of an unknown for Sunday's race against the clock. The course is not completely flat; there's a short climb that gains 40 metres toward the end of the course, but it's not enough of an obstacle for Mollema to put his climbing prowess to use. The 29-year-old Dutchman was sixth in the 37.5km time trial during stage 13 at the Tour de France, but Sunday's test in Alberta is significantly shorter and could favour bigger riders with big power.

No matter what happens on Sunday, the leader after the time trial will have to defend the race lead on a challenging circuit race in Edmonton on Monday. The peloton will cover 11 laps of the 11.3km lumpy circuit, which has seen the leader change hands before in 2014 when Giant's Tom Dumoulin lost the lead to stage winner Daryl Impey by one second.

"I did it last year for the first time, and it's definitely difficult to defend on because it's pretty technical, a lot of up and down, and it's usually very aggressive," Huffman said. "The way the race has been the last three days I think that will probably continue. There will be a lot of attacking, so it will be difficult."

Silber's Cataford, currently sixth overall, echoed Huffman's assessment of Monday's circuit race.

"The course is definitely tough; there's a couple good hills in there," he said. "But I think, like Evan said, the racers have been making the race more this year than the actual courses, so just given how aggressive everyone's been, it's going to be an interesting day. We'll have to wait and see what all the time gaps are after tomorrow, but it will be decisive for sure."

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Pat Malach
Pat Malach

Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.