Defending Tour of Alberta champion Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) put in a productive day's work Thursday during the opening stage at the Tour of Alberta, making a large initial breakaway, sticking with the leaders when that group split and then finishing more than two minutes ahead of all but 10 other riders.
Mollema joined a breakaway that eventually swelled to 29 riders, almost a third of the 101-rider peloton. When attacks on the eighth of nine laps on the Lethbridge circuit pared the group down to 11, Mollema made the split and contested the stage win from the group. He didn't get the win, but he did make the job of defending the general classification considerably easier.
"It was a good start for sure," Mollema told Cyclingnews. "I lost some bonification seconds, so I think there are a few guys five or 10 seconds in front of me, but I think it's just, what is it, 10 or 11 guys left for GC? That's good for this first day, but there are still four days to go. So we'll see."
Stage 1 winner Colin Joyce (Axeon Hagens Berman) now leads the GC by seven seconds over Alex Howes (Cannondale-Drapac) and Robin Carpenter (Holowesko-Citadel). Rally Cycling's Evan Huffman is fourth, 13 seconds down, followed by Antoine Duchesne (Canada), Francisco Mancebo (Skydive Dubai), Mollema, Angus Morton (Jelly Belly-Maxxis), Alexander Cataford (Silber Pro Cycling) and Daniel Eaton (UnitedHealthcare), all also 13 seconds down. Silber's Nigel Ellsay is 19 seconds down, while the rest of the field is more than two minutes back.
Cannondale-Drapac's Alex Howes, who finished second on the stage, disagreed with Mollema's assessment, however, saying the race was still wide open and anybody's to win.
"I think it's easy to think that," Howes said of the idea that only 11 riders were still in contention. "But honestly I think we can expect more of the same everyday, and it will be a bit of a lottery to see who makes it into the breakaways in days to come, and maybe on day three or day five, maybe it's not going to be a two-minute gap, maybe it's going to be six minutes when there's snow and rain and everybody decides to start climbing in the cars and stuff.
"Honestly, it's a pretty open race," Howes said. "I'd be surprised if I finished in the top 10 to be honest with you."
Joyce, sitting at the press conference resplendent in the race leader's neon yellow jersey, also backed Howes' notion that the GC battle was not just a race among 11 riders.
"Oh no," Joyce said when asked about the GC contenders. "There's still a lot of racing left. As you saw today a break can get up the road and stick it. So I definitely wouldn't say it's just a race among 11 guys. There's some really, really strong riders out there, and also that time trial can really shake things up."
The 2016 route in Alberta is relatively flat, and most GC riders were pinning their hopes on a consistent performance in the four road stages and a strong day at the time trial on the penultimate day. Thursday's stage may have put the race on its head, but Howes said people shouldn't underestimate how difficult the rest of the tour will be.
"Sometimes it's not necessarily the course that makes the racing hard," he said. "You can have a pretty easy race if you have a final climb that's 12km long, because everybody knows there's only going to be five guys in that race on the final climb, and everybody else just kind of cruises around and those five guys go and win the race. They duke it out and everybody else has to settle for scraps.
"But when it's an open course like this and you have a number of the big teams that don't have their best sprinters – we don't have a sprinter here and Trek doesn't have a sprinter here. UHC has a couple of sprinters but they're not sprinter show sit in the back all day, they're aggressive riders. Really, I think we're looking at a really awful four days coming up. Awful for us and great for everyone else."