Wow! What a week for cycling fans in Alberta! The inaugural Tour of Alberta, a UCI 2.1 road bike stage race, was held at various venues across the province and was it ever a hoot. I watched the prologue in Edmonton on Tuesday evening, then volunteered for Stage 1 in Sherwood Park (road marshal) on Wednesday and at Stage 2 in Devon (team parking) on Thursday. Of course, the stars of the show were Peter Sagan (the number 2 ranked cyclist in the world), Cadel Evans (winner of 2011 Tour de France), and Ryder Hesjedal (winner of 2012 Giro d’Italia). But there were lots of other world ranked cyclists taking part too, as well as a bunch of up-and-comers. Since the Vuelta a Espana, the 3rd of the big 3 races (with the TdF and Giro), was taking place at the same time, it was nice to get such a quality group.
This was the first time that most Albertans had been exposed to riding of this calibre, except for the lucky few who have purposely gone to Europe for the big races. And I have to say that these guys came as advertised – regular, friendly guys who just happen to be able to ride their bikes insanely fast for hours and hours. Some of the teams arrived in Edmonton a few days before the start and could be seen riding around the city, checking out the prologue route while avoiding traffic and finding out where the potholes were. Traffic wouldn’t be a problem on race day but the potholes surely would be. Some of our club riders, out for our usual Tuesday morning ride, encountered one of the teams when both groups happened to stop for a break at one of the local cafes. Apparently they were very accommodating in answering questions (How much did your bike cost? About 10,00. Dollars? No, Euros) and posing for pictures.
Of course, there was some complaining from the car-centric portion of the population due to the fact that the centre of the city would be closed to all motor vehicles from 2-9 pm on a workday. But they were in the minority, judging by the festival atmosphere and the number of bikes taking advantage of the car free roads downtown. Churchill Square, the start/finish area, was packed. I was lucky enough to get a spot right beside the start house, where I got a good view of all the riders and could see the big screen so I could follow the action on the course.
My volunteer job in Sherwood Park involved guarding a parking lot for a condo complex on the neutral lap route. Not onerous, by any means, but necessary. The people I dealt with all knew about the race, had no problem with losing access to their driveway for half an hour and were keen to watch the caravan of cops, teams cars, riders, and more team cars go by their door. A fellow volunteer across the street, though, said that one resident came up to him and asked “What’s going on?”. How is it that people can function in society without reading the papers, listening to radio or watching the news? This event has been publicized heavily for weeks and this guy wasn’t aware of it? It boggles the mind. The only disappointing part of the day was the abysmal tv coverage of the Stage by Sportsnet. They lost their remote transmission signals, the ones from the camera motos that ride along with the riders, and the commentators were left to their own devices to try and fill 2 hours of air time with no action video. There was a lot of cutting to commercial and blathering on while we looked at an empty finish line. You would think that they would be better prepared with emergency contingencies. The video feed was going to over 100 countries so you would think that maybe checking the equipment to make sure that it worked would be a priority. Because of their screw up, Eurosport dropped their live coverage of the next few stages of the race. How embarrassing. If you want to play with the big boys Sportsnet, get your shit together!
My job for Stage 2 in Devon was a little more interesting. A number of us were to monitor access to the team bus parking area – not to keep fans out of it but to keep them from getting smucked by the riders as they rode through the mass of humanity up to the start line to sign in, then back to the bus, then back to the start line when it was time to go. (Any rider that stopped to ask us a question, that question was always “Where are the bathrooms?” Some teams have nice tour buses but not fully equipped apparently.) These pros are not like football or hockey players, with private entrances to their workplace so that the fan cannot interact with them. No! Fans here have full access to the team parking area. As soon as, say, the Garmin-Sharp bus parks, it is surrounded by autograph seekers, school kids, Ryderphiles, and just the simply curious. As our “boss” said, we had to keep our heads on a swivel to prevent someone from getting hurt. Bikes were coming from both directions through a 10-foot wide entrance to the course that was frequently clogged with fans. The riders must be used to this though – they are not only fast on the course but are very nimble biking through crowds! The one good thing is that all the riders had to pass us slowly, and in close proximity, at least 3 times. Most escaped my camera while I was trying to keep fan and rider from an intimate encounter. But not Cadel Evans.
Thankfully, Sportsnet got their technical problems worked out for the remaining Stages. The one video shot I will always remember, and is sure to be iconic for the tour, is when a group of horses started racing the peleton during the Strathmore to Drumheller stage. Lovely Alberta shot! This still shot, taken by VeloImages, captures Robert Gesink with 1 of the horses.
All in all, this has been a wonderful 6 days for this cycling fan. Got to see some of my favourite racers in person, got to experience a major bike race traversing my province (in Stage 1 on roads that I ride with my buddies), and witness the sheer power and speed of the peleton (they generate a wind like a semi). What a rush! Sure hope that they are able to get the funding to keep it going for next year.