Five ways to make the Tour of Alberta more exciting for “underwhelmed” racing …

On the surface, it seemed like a thrilling finish to the second instalment of the Tour of Alberta on Sunday, with only a one-second margin between the yellow jersey winner and second place. So why were so many die-hard cycling fans shrugging their shoulders? Why was my Twitter feed and cycling forums filled up with comments like this?

The Tour of Alberta is a wonderful addition to the province. As a cycling fan, I love that we have the country’s most important stage race, I love how it’s bringing the sport to a bigger North American audience, and I love the chance to see some of the top pros on the roads we ride every day. It’s a well-run, top-level competition that we are lucky to have in our backyard.

But I’ve heard more than a few cycling fans mutter that this year’s instalment was, well, kind of boring. Why? Of the five stages (apart from the time-trial prologue), all were sprint finishes. None of those stages ventured beyond the prairies. The stages were so straightforward that the guy who won the prologue nearly topped the podium just by keeping pace. Sure, we all know cyclists like to complain (ahem), but these are valid criticisms for a sport built on a culture of tactics, variety, surprises and suffering.

So after batting this question around on Twitter, all with the goal of making everyone’s favourite pro cycling event better, I’ve synthesized a few humble suggestions from Alberta bike racing fans about how the event might be improved.

1. Get into the mountains.

In the months before the first Tour of Alberta in 2013, tour organizers were dealt a blow when flooding destroyed parts of the Highwood Pass, which washed away their plans for a mountain stage. They gamely pressed on by rerouting the race through the foothills. So when the 2014 map was unveiled and it again skipped the mountains, fans (myself among them) were confused and disappointed.

There are some easy explanations. Tour organizers said the event is still in its nascent phase, when dollars are difficult to come by. As a result, organizers take the tour to the communities willing to pony up sponsorship money. This year, none of mountain communities agreed to take part (perhaps with good reason: those mountain communities tend to attract their share of tourists without the benefit of a bicycle race, even if it is broadcast to millions of viewers around the world, whereas other Alberta burghs may not be in such an enviable tourist position).

An additional challenge is the mountain parks. It’s never easy to organize mass events in national parks — Parks Canada is rightfully stingy about keeping a lid on such  events lest they upset the environmental balance in the parks — which limits the options faced to organizers.

So for a new event, it’s easy to understand why the race hasn’t made it into the Rockies. Viewers, however, don’t care about logistics. They want a thrilling race, and mountain stages in a province known for some of the world’s most picturesque can deliver that. Organizers have (almost) promised mountains next year — “We need to get to the mountains and I can tell you we are working really hard to get there for our third edition of the Tour of Alberta,” said executive chair Duane Vienneau — so let’s hope they can deliver.

2. Get off the prairies.

There’s a uniquely beautiful feel when the peloton hits the prairies. But after five days of it, like we saw this year, that beauty was inducing shrugs in some viewers. What might be better is variety. Like this suggestion:

Such variety would not only make the race more interesting by creating opportunities for racers, it would better showcase the province. Alberta is famous for its natural beauty, so why not exploit it?

Riders turned onto Highway 21 north of Strathmore during the third stage of the Tour of Alberta.

Riders turned onto Highway 21 north of Strathmore during the third stage of the Tour of Alberta.

3. Make the race tougher.

At the end of the prologue, a four-kilometre time trial up the road at Canada Olympic Park, I watched as racers turned themselves inside out to make the best time, ending with great gulps of air, frothing mouths and deathly expressions. I couldn’t take my eyes off them.

A dirt road in Strathcona County on Stage 4 of the Tour of Alberta 2014.

A dirt road in Strathcona County on Stage 4 of the Tour of Alberta 2014.

That’s one of the things that makes bike racing so compelling. The sport is built on the idea of suffering, it’s part of the history and mythology. Racers will hate me for saying this, but we didn’t see enough of it during this year’s Tour of Alberta. There was some bad weather to make things interesting, but the most memorable part of this year’s tour may have been on Stage 4 when organizers sent racers onto a series of central Alberta dirt roads (Alberta cobblestones, as some took to calling them, after the famously brutal cobblestone stretches on such classic races as Paris-Roubaix). The dust and gravel turned up by the riders turned the race into a masochist’s dream. It was nasty, dirty, brutal and totally mesmerizing. This is what makes for great races.

4. Keep improving the viewing experience.

The inaugural Tour of Alberta was heralded as an almost universal success, with the exception of the TV broadcast. Viewers at home were greeted with interrupted TV feeds, poorly timed coverage and moments of amateurism.

Compared to that, this year’s TV broadcast was a major improvement. There’s still room to get better before the broadcast can compete with the world’s best, but if everyone involved in the broadcast commits to such improvements every year, it will make the experience better for fans at home. And while they’re at it, let’s hope they build a tour tracker app so computer and smartphone-bound fans can follow along as well.

5. Don’t forget the local fans.

As a long-suffering cycling fan in a country where the sport remains on the fringes, I was blown away at the response to last year’s final stage finish in downtown Calgary. I expected a spattering of fans, but instead found myself surrounded by tens of thousands of people who gave the race a fantastic greeting. That was the moment when I finally suspended my disbelief and thought for the first time that maybe this Tour of Alberta thing might be for real.

10183184 Five ways to make the Tour of Alberta more exciting for underwhelmed racing fans

Unlike most sports, cycling stage races don’t  rely on ticket sales. In fact, they are free for spectators. That’s one of the great things about the sport. But that also means organizers are forced to find money other ways; through sponsorships and government funding and small towns willing to cough up dough (see above). For those reasons, it must also be tempting for organizers to forget about in-the-flesh fans in the pursuit of sustaining sources of funding. That, however, would be a mistake. Those moments like tens of thousands of us experienced in Calgary last year are what will create new fans who will support the race far in the future.

Organizers have, so far, done a great job turning the job into an event for locals — every stage has a festival keeping the start lines hopping for fans both serious and casual. And it’s working.

“In Lethbridge, it was eight degrees, pouring rain, bone-chilling cold, and we had great crowds,” Vienneau told the Edmonton Journal. “They’d sit in little shops, then come out, so I think based on the weather, we’re very happy.

“We want big audiences because we want to build momentum, we want people to fall in love with the sport, but sometimes weather affects those numbers.”

Let’s hope they always remember those big audiences.

What do you think about this year’s Tour of Alberta? Leave a comment below or follow me on  Leave a comment below or follow me onTwitter, Google Plus,or Facebook, or drop me a line via email me attbabin@calgaryherald.com.

Watch for my forthcoming book, due out in the fall: Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling.

 

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