The sweeping winds of the southern Alberta plains finally made an appearance Friday for stage 3 of the UCI 2.1 Tour of Alberta after two relatively calm days, and literally blew the race apart. Rain is expected for Saturday's stage to Black Diamond, with Mother Nature again expected to shape the racing.
Garmin-Sharp's Rohan Dennis benefited most from the chaos caused by the winds, taking the stage win and the yellow Jersey from Cannondale's Peter Sagan.
The top of the general classification completely reshuffled, as first a breakaway of 18 piled up time on the peloton before another splinter group of six sneaked away to the finish.
Following a right-hand turn just 10km into the 170km route from Strathmore to Drumheller, the peloton felt the full force of the day's gusts and immediately started splitting into echelons as riders scrambled to find relief. Dennis and a handful of general
classification threats who were less than a minute behind Sagan made the split, but the Cannondale leader missed out.
“There were a couple of attacks by [5-hour Energy's Francisco] Mancebo over a couple of those little rollers about 60km in,” Dennis said.
“A couple of us jumped across, and from then it was a lot of little attacks and the group was just sort of formed. I saw a group of five or six behind, and I was worried that Peter Sagan was in there. I thought as soon as he's here the break will shut down. So I was hoping they wouldn't catch us, but when they did I saw that Peter wasn't there and it was a bit of a relief. From then on it all panned out.”
Back in the field, Cannondale chased briefly, but with the team's Damiano Caruso up the road and Sagan and his team needing to save some bullets for the upcoming Canadian WorldTour races just a week away, the 23-year-old Slovakian national champion pulled his team off the front. With nearly every squad in the peloton represented in the break, chasing was left to Continental teams Smart Stop-Mountain Khakis and the Canadian National Team. From that point on, the leaders' gap started increasing exponentially.
Another split in the breakaway with about 25km remaining left just Dennis, Caruso, Brent Bookwalter (BMC), Patrick Gretsch (Argos-Shimano), Robert Gesink (Belkin) and Steve Morabito (BMC) in the six-rider lead group that eventually finished more than 16 minutes ahead of the peloton.
“We really had the hammer down,” Bookwalter said. “We needed to whittle a pretty big group down to make it a better chance to win the stage.”
Morabito drove the final kilometers for Bookwalter, but Dennis was just too quick and jumped about 100 meters before the line, nipping Bookwalter by half a wheel for the win and the overall lead.
The hectic day of a racing may have worn down the riders, but for organizers and fans who had feared nearly complete domination by Sagan's sprinting prowess over the relatively flat parcours, the wind-aided racing was a welcome development.
Canadian Ryan Anderson (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) was one of the riders who benefited from the change in weather from the first two days, making the original group of 18 and taking the jersey for best Canadian rider from Garmin's Ryder Hesjedal.
“I think we got a true stage that the Tour of Alberta can provide,” Anderson said.
“With the wind and the rollers and whatnot. We raced hard all day to make the stage even better and more exciting. After that right-hand turn today into the cross winds it was game on until the finish. I think it made for an exciting day of racing for everyone to watch. So it just adds to what the Tour of Alberta can be like and how it can develop into a hard race, not necessarily with big climbs.”
Bookwalter agreed that despite the removal of the Queen Stage and its summit finish – because of flood damage earlier this summer – the riders and conditions have made the event selective.
“The old cliché is playing out in this race,” he said. “It's the riders that make the race, not the terrain. It's been a pretty good race. Everyone's going for it – very aggressive racing and not so easy to control.”
Rain expected on Saturday
Today's Stage 4, which is a hilly route from Black Diamond to Black Diamond, is a modified course that replaced the big mountain stage from Black Diamond to Canmore that was originally planned for the penultimate day.
Although the winds may subside for the Saturday test, wet weather has moved into southern Alberta and could provide a different obstacle for riders to overcome.