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Race organizers are looking to make this an annual event that involves cities and communities, and to promote the sport and the province’s natural attractions (JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Race organizers are looking to make this an annual event that involves cities and communities, and to promote the sport and the province’s natural attractions (JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

High hopes held for Tour of Alberta cycling race Add to ...

There were always doubts it would work as well as they had hoped. Would the organization hold up over 10 centres, 900 kilometres and six days? Would the racers do their part? Would the fans care?

For event chairman Brian Jolly, those concerns faded on Tuesday night when he watched the time-trial prologue for the inaugural Tour of Alberta, a taste of big-time cycling brought to Wild Rose Country. Down the streets of Edmonton, past the dome-topped legislature building, 117 riders from 15 racing teams sped by tens of thousands of onlookers. That, said Mr. Jolly, who is a former pro cyclist from Great Britain, was the start everyone was looking for – a little spark of magic.

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“Canada is a country that’s not knowledgeable about bike racing,” he said before dashing from one location to another en route to Sunday’s finale in Calgary. “We hosted the world road championships in Hamilton in 2003 and we had people talking about it for years. That was a big stride. Now we’re seeing people coming out here and learning about the races and what goes on and they’re enjoying it.

“It’s been fantastic.”

Albertans know cycling. They ride bikes to work, ride them for enjoyment, ride them in the Rockies. Most, though, don’t understand the intricacies of a tour-stage cycling race, the strategies and team play, and that lack of sophistication troubled organizers. But they forged ahead with the belief the Tour of Alberta would be a yearly event to involve cities and communities and promote the sport and the province’s natural attractions – its mountain vistas and prairie backdrop. (The Tour’s lone mountain stage had to be rerouted due to the June floods.)

The Alberta government agreed with the concept and contributed $3.5-million from its Rural Development Fund. Travel Alberta and Alberta Tourism, Parks and Recreation added a combined $750,000. Sponsorship revenue totalled another $1-million, while the local organizing committees in cities or towns on the Tour produced $500,000. Last month, Alberta’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Verlyn Olson, explained why the government got behind a multistage pro cycling race.

“The Premier [Alison Redford] challenged me about a year ago when I was appointed to raise the profile of agriculture in rural Alberta,” Mr. Olson said. “And I can’t think of a better way of doing it than two hours a day on Sportsnet and reaching 100 countries and 30 to 40 million people. It is going to give us the chance to tell the story of what life is like out here.”

Rogers Sportsnet is providing live coverage and highlighting star cyclists Peter Sagan of Slovakia, 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans and Canada’s Ryder Hesjedal. Eurosport is showing the event internationally. That’s important for Mr. Jolly, who noted the Tour of Alberta is similar to races in Europe, excluding the epic Tour de France with its 21 days of pedalling through the Pyrenees and French Alps.

“We’re getting viewers worldwide. That’s what we can build on to benefit the communities, Alberta and Canada,” Mr. Jolly said. “There are criticisms of Alberta and the environment [relating to oil and gas development and its regulation], and this allows people to see the other side of the province. It puts the sport in a higher profile in Canada, too.”

Cycling’s image has taken a flogging in recent years because of doping cases and after Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles for using performance-enhancing drugs.

Tour of Alberta cyclists are bound by Union Cycliste Internationale anti-doping measures and carry a biological passport that records their physical condition. Riders who make a dramatic improvement in performance will be tested.

“What is interesting is cycling is the only sport since the 1960s that is trying to clean itself up,” Mr. Jolly said. “Baseball is getting serious now, which is good. We’re moving into a different era and I think cycling can move forward from the Armstrong findings.”

In Alberta, Tour officials are already looking ahead. After Sunday’s final sprint through the streets of downtown Calgary, they plan to review and improve the race for next September. The goal: Keep the magic sparked.

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