Tour of Alberta – A trip down memory lane
The Tour of Alberta isn’t the most significant race in the world of cycling, but it has personal significance to me. I never thought I’d live to see the day that alma mater would host a sport where men shave their legs and weigh less than 100kg. Hockey (go Jets!), football, bull riding and cow tipping are the mainstream sports in Alberta. The fact there’s now an international cycling race there shows how far the sport has come since I left Alberta only 8 years ago. To me, it’s just as incomprehensible as seeing a rodeo taking place on the Champs-Élysées.
The Tour of Alberta is the dream of former yellow jersey wearer Alex Steida. He was the first North American cyclist to lead the Tour de France in 1986, if only for a day. Steida, who lives in Edmonton, felt that the local geography made the province an ideal place for a multi-stage race and he spent nearly a decade getting the idea funded. The idea began to take shape last year when funding was established with the view of promoting and showcasing rural Alberta to the world and stimulating economic activity in the communities.
Much of my adult racing life was spent training and racing on the same roads as the Tour of Alberta and the gallery below brings back a flood of memories. As you’ll see, the roads throughout the whole province are basically set out in a grid, so there aren’t many twists and turns. This meant hours of riding straight west into the wind, then turning around and catching the tailwind home. For months of the year, I did this in temperatures that approached zero degrees celsius. At the time I loved nothing more, but thinking back I have no idea how I kept my motivation levels so high.
I have great memories of racing in Alberta. My first road race a in a place called Fish Creek Park outside of Calgary (it was usually cancelled because of snow). My first race team was Pedalhead Road Works which appears to have grown into a thriving, very cool top-end bikeshop in Edmonton. My go-to bikeshop in Calgary was Bow Cycles. They were the coolest crew of guys you could imagine and put on some great events.
At the time I was racing, there was only one regular bunch ride out of Calgary. It was on a Wednesday evening and it was called “The Wednesday Night Jam Session”. It was an ~80km loop with a few decent climbs, so you couldn’t simply sit in if you wanted to make it around. It was hard, it was fast, and only the best riders attended. To be good enough to make it around, you had to have some decent experience with impeccable bunch etiquette. Nobody would think of showing up until they had done their apprenticeship (Cat 5, 4, 3…where you had to win your license upgrade). From what I hear, the ride has basically been disbanded by the police since the riders would sometimes ride two abreast (the bunches only ever had about 25 riders). Harsh.
My favorite night of the week was the Tuesday night crits. It only lasted 3 months a year because of winter. Bunches only consisted of about 20 riders and it was run by a young husband and wife team of volunteers. I still can’t understand what satisfaction they got out of it. It cost $2 (a toonie) to enter and if you won you’d get a pair of socks or something small from the sponsors. It wasn’t much, but we didn’t expect anything.
Road races came along once every few weeks, which meant that you had to pad out your race schedule with mountain bike racing. There were a few highlight events every summer, most of which don’t seem to exist anymore. The Canada Day Crit in Edmonton was one of the best because we got to race in the middle of the city. The Bowness Crit in Calgary was another (both of those look to still be run). Looking at the current Alberta Bicycle Association race calendar, it doesn’t look like the road race calendar has grown much. If anything, it seems to have shrunk in the past decade.
There were two Albertan riders who stand out in my memory from when I was racing. The first is Paul Kelly. He was an exceptionally talented rider who would simply ride away from the main field and usually win solo. He rode for a small Italian team (SC Reda-Baggioni) in the late ’90s for a season or two. He saw too much of the rampant doping that was going on and then went over to the Navigators (a US Domestic team) for another season. Paul always had this naturopath thing going on where he’d do everything he could to get the same performance from natural means as the dopers would (I even tried Elk Antler velvet on his recommendation!).
The other rider who stands out in my memory is Zach Bell. He now races with Champion-System and just finished the Tour of Alberta. Zach started racing in Cat 5 and made it to Cat 1/2 by the end of his first season. He never found major international success on the road (he did win a National Road title though), but had respectable results on the track. Many of you in Australia may remember him from the time he spent here a few years ago when he completely dominated our summer crits.
Seeing how incredibly talented Paul and Zach were gave me the respect that pro cyclists deserve. Compare these small number of Albertan success stories to racing any mid-week crit in Australia where you’ll encounter dozens of rising stars or World Tour riders along side you. It shows the depth of talent here in Australia and the pathways that are available to these athletes.
Funnily enough, the current Cycling Victoria General Manager, Kipp Kauffman (who is doing fantastic things for racing here in Australia by the way) used to be the Executive Director at the Alberta Bicycle Association from 2007-2009. Everyone who races in Victoria should be thankful we have him on board.
Judging by the fact my old mountain bike mates who used to take the piss out of me for being a roadie are now roadies, it looks like cycling has come a long way in Alberta. To see the likes of Peter Sagan and Cadel Evans winning stages in towns like Camrose and Black Diamond is truly remarkable.
Ah, the memories …I hope you enjoy Brian Hodes’ photo gallery as much as I.