Arriving in Lethbridge for the start of the tour of Alberta it started to sink in, we were going to be bumping shoulders with some of the world’s best riders. Of course I had seen the start list leading up to the race but it wasn’t until I was standing next to Frank Schleck, Ryder Hesjedal, Bauke Mollema, Francisco Mancebo and others that it started to sink in; these guys have been on the podium at the tour. I was feeling good, nervous and anxious going into the first stage but had absolutely no idea what to expect.
Stage one was a circuit race but it might as well have been a 100+km crit. The pace was full gas right from the gun as there was no neutral start but after 5min I found myself jumping off the front with guys from Trek and Cannondale jumping on my wheel. We got pulled back and of course the fireworks just keep going until something sticks but it was a nice confidence booster to see that I was able to trade punches with these guys as well and wouldn’t just be sitting in as pack fill. The stage didn’t go as we had all thought as it turned out to be the crucial stage for GC as a break of around 20 made it to the line 2min up the road. Discouraged that my GC aspirations were going to be hard to maintain, my race was now about getting in the breaks and stage hunting.
Well yesterday was 30+ and sunny and today we all got hypothermia. 186km stage with a decent sized fast climb in the middle made stage 2 seem fairly straight forward until you throw in the classic tour of Alberta weather. Again the all-out fireworks show took place for the first hour until all the teams were happy the break had gotten away and we got to relax until the KOM. As soon as we started the KOM the sky’s opened up and the temperature dropped to just under 5 degrees, but seeing as how I was holding over 6w/kg to stay at the front while other riders were being popped off the back, the cold hadn’t sunk in yet. Shortly after the top of the KOM we would make a left and would ride the next 90km’s in a ripping cross wind. Knowing this is where the field was going to be ripped apart everyone was fighting to stay near the front and make the split. Sure enough only 200m after making the left turn a gap started to open up with 30 riders up the road. Knowing this was the move that was going to stick I jumped across solo, my eyes rolling back into my head trying to close only a 500m gap in the cross wind. Once the pace relaxed a bit and our heart rates dropped everyone began to freeze. Since there had been a huge split the commissaries wouldn’t let our team cars come up to us as they didn’t want other riders jumping in and trying to draft the caravan up to the break. We now had 80km’s to go in the cross winds, pouring rain, 5 degrees out and wearing only a long sleeve jersey and shorts. No one spoke as we were too cold, I thought I was going to crash going down a straight line at one point because I was shaking so much and could barely hold on to my bars and I rode the next 80km’s in the drops because my fingers wouldn’t work well enough to pull the brakes while I was on my hoods. I also barely made it to the finish because I was bonking so bad and had plenty of food in my jersey but couldn’t get to it because I had no dexterity left in my hands to get into my pockets. That was a tough day to be a bike racer.
Stage 3 was much the same as stage 2 but trade the horrid weather for some rad gravel sections. Riding 50km/h (on the flats) in deep gravel on road bikes in the bunch is absolutely insane. Everyone is right on the edge of crashing, there’s bottles flying out of cages everywhere, slamming into pot holes you’d avoid on a motocross bike and if one person crashes, no way you can steer around it let alone touch the brakes. You either throw fear and common sense out the window, hold on and pedal hard and just tell yourself it’s going to be fine or you’re dropped and if you get dropped in the gravel your tours done as you’re not coming back and you’re not making time cut. Thankfully I thought this was so much fun and loved the gravel sections. I think the reason some people love it is because you’re so focussed on not crashing and you’re getting bounced around so much that you forget how much your legs are burning. Either way that was a ton of fun.
Stage 4 was a road bike only 12km ITT. I was happy to still have good legs and managed to finish 19th, 2 seconds out of 13th. I really enjoyed this day as again I was nervous going in but managed to beat Frank Schleck by less than a seconds and Mike Woods was my minute man but by the line I had almost caught him. The highlight of this tour however was hearing my parents cheering just before the finish line as I was bleeding out of my eyes. They didn’t tell me they were coming and this was the first race they were able to make it to this year so they drove 12 hours just to see me for a few seconds as they had to leave the next morning.
Stage 5 was the hardest day, a 126km circuit race in downtown Edmonton with 2 hard climbs each lap. Like the first stage a big break went with one of our riders in it but after a few laps he was dropped out of it. The break was at 30seconds at the time and as soon as I saw our rider and a few others coming back to the bunch I jumped across on one of the climbs trying to bridge solo. I managed to close 25 out of the 30second gap but with an intermediate sprint coming up, the break picked up the pace too high for me to make the last 5 seconds. Heartbreaking to get so close but have to roll back to the bunch I managed to stay with the front group as each lap more and more riders were blown off the back.
I finished the tour 15th overall on GC which although didn’t meet my aspirations of a top 10, it was much better than out of the top 50 or a DNF that most u23 riders have finished in their tour of Alberta. I learned a lot from this race and gained plenty of confidence as the racing was actually easier than I imagined and I wasn’t in over my head. The style of racing is the biggest difference, full gas for the first 45min-1:30 then calm if you’re not in the break then flat out again for the last hour. The other major difference is that they don’t slow down as the stages go by. You’re spinning out the 53x11 on the flats on day 1 and every day after that and if you have less than a 55x11 on for the TT you won’t be in the top 30 unless it’s uphill.