Tour of Alberta returns with fan-friendly tweaks

CALGARY — More urban routes for spectators and “Canadian cobblestone” have been incorporated into the second Tour of Alberta cycling stage race. What’s missing is a mountain stage and the defending champion.

CALGARY — More urban routes for spectators and “Canadian cobblestone” have been incorporated into the second Tour of Alberta cycling stage race. What’s missing is a mountain stage and the defending champion.

The 2014 Tour of Alberta opens with Tuesday’s prologue in Calgary. The six-day race features 120 racers from 13 countries, including 24 Canadians.

The penultimate leg near Edmonton includes sections of dirt road, which presents a very Canadian surface for Europeans accustomed to racing on cobblestones.

Wednesday’s Stage 1 is 143 kilometres of laps in and around Lethbridge. Thursday’s Stage 2 is a 145-km dash from Innisfail to Red Deer with a two-lap detour around Sylvan Lake.

“We have some Canadian cobblestone,” Tour of Alberta executive director Duane Vienneau says. “It’s called gravel.”

The field includes Dutchmen Bauke Mollema and Steven Kruijswijk, who finished 10th and 15th respectively in this year’s Tour de France, as well as Tour stage winner Ramunas Navardauskas of Lithuania and Tour of Utah victor Tom Danielson of the U.S.

Edmonton’s Ryan Anderson finished eighth overall and wore the Maple Leaf jersey as top Canadian in the inaugural Tour of Alberta in 2013. The 27-year-old returns to his home province with his U.S.-based Optum Pro Cycling team.

But Canadian cycling star Ryder Hesjedal of Victoria will be absent. He is currently racing the Tour of Spain, which is one of cycling’s three Grand Tours alongside the Tour de France and Tour of Italy.

Rohan Dennis of Australia was expected to mount a defence of his Tour of Alberta title until a mid-season transfer from the Garmin-Sharp team to BMC Racing stuck a spoke in that wheel.

BMC isn’t entered in the Tour of Alberta and Dennis is currently racing the Tour of Spain. Garmin-Sharp is sending a team to Alberta, but it doesn’t include Hesjedal, whom the team also assigned to Spain.

“You don’t go to cyclists directly,” Vienneau explains. “We invite the teams. The teams accept and then the teams choose the cyclists.

“The teams look at our race and try to match skill sets of their team. They ultimately want to come and win this race. Ryder is not in our race, but it could be because Ryder is better suited for another race.”

The Tour of Alberta offers $125,000 in prize money. After Tuesday’s prologue, the 734-kilometre route winds through Lethbridge, Innisfail, Red Deer, Wetaskiwin and Sherwood Park before concluding Sunday in Edmonton.

Rogers Sportsnet will carry the race domestically with networks such as ESPN and Eurosport providing international coverage.

Part of the television appeal of cycling stage races is scenery. But despite its proximity to the Rocky Mountains, the Tour of Alberta will remain on the plain.

A mountain leg from Black Diamond to Canmore was on last year’s itinerary. Flooding in Southern Alberta altered the stage to a race through the foothills and back to Black Diamond.

Both Canmore and Banff west of Calgary were approached about hosting a mountain stage this year, but neither community wanted to put up the money, according to Vienneau.

“The problem with those two places is they didn’t have in their budget the rights fee,” Vienneau explains. “We have to have a rights-fee model to make the race sustainable.”

Rights fees range from $100,000 to $350,000 depending on the stage, he says. The Alberta government put $4 million towards the first race in 2013, but that grant dropped to $1.5 million this year.

“We had to make up a huge gap of money, about two and a half million bucks,” Vienneau says. “We did that by increasing our corporate support, like Alberta Treasury Branch, and also community support because we have a rights-fee model in place to host the race.

“I can tell you we have plans to hit the mountains in Year 3.”

Anderson isn’t lamenting the absence of mountains this year.

“For me, mountain stages don’t necessarily suit me the best so the way the race is set up right now is better for me,” the Canadian racer says.

“I think the important part of it is just making sure the race continues to build and be stable. Then they can explore more with the mountains and stuff like that.”

The prairies pose their own challenges for the cyclists.

“Wind will play a big factor in the overall outcome of the race,” Anderson said. “Last year, we had the one day into Drumheller and it was extremely windy. The roads are a lot more like a grid, so you’re headed in the same direction all day.”

It was on that Strathmore-to-Drumheller stage in 2013 when Dennis successfully battled crosswinds to take the overall lead from Peter Sagan of Slovakia.

This year’s Tour of Alberta travels into and through urban areas to be accessible to spectators. Stage 1 in Lethbridge and Sunday’s final stage in Edmonton will be multiple laps of the same loop, which allows more views of the peloton.

“We want to build this race and make it an annual event every year,” Vienneau says. “We’re still at the stage where we want to go to the people to build audience versus them having to come to us.”

Friday’s Stage 3 is 157 kilometres from Wetaskiwin to CFB Edmonton via Fort Saskatchewan. The aforementioned gravel patches are featured on Saturday’s 163-km leg from Edmonton into Sherwood Park.

The final leg is 11 laps of an 11-km loop through downtown Edmonton.

“There’s not a lot of sport events of international calibre these days that you can go to for free,” Vienneau points out. “We have a festival in every community we hit. It’s really to promote the sport of cycling.”