The Tour of Alberta kicked off Thursday with a hilly 66.4-mile circuit race around the town of Lethbridge, which finished in a sprint won by Axeon Hagens Berman rider Colin Joyce.
The short circuit, which the peloton tackled nine times, is indicative of the Alberta’s pared-down format for 2016. Formerly a six-day race, the Tour of Alberta has shrunk to five days this year. There are no summit finishes and no grueling, decisive climbs. Only two stages are longer than 100 miles, and the decisive stage — Sunday’s stage 4 in Edmonton — is a 7.5 mile time trial.
The race’s Executive Director Duane Vienneau says the modest format represents a survival tactic for the race.
“If we overspent on this year’s race, there won’t be a race next year,” Vienneau says. “This year it’s five days and we spend within our means. Next year we have full intention of going back to six days.”
Viennau pegged the race’s annual budget at between $3.5 million to $4.2 million, which puts it on the same financial plane as the Tour of Utah. For 2016, the Tour of Alberta is on the lower end of that scale, Vennau says.
The cost cutting is a result of greater financial forces within Canada’s richest (by GDP) province. Alberta is Canada’s energy province, and its economy is fueled in an outsized way by the mining and oil industries. The province’s Athabasca oil sands are one of the world’s largest deposits of heavy crude oil.
This summer, enormous wildfires shut down those oil fields for several months. The fires, which economists now label the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history, burned nearly 1.5 million acres.
The disaster was the third major financial punch to Alberta’s economy. Global oil prices have plummeted since 2014. The Canadian Dollar is down from its heights in the early 2000’s. All three have contributed to a recession in Alberta, which has shrunk the province’s GDP by 3 percent.
How does this impact the race? According to Vienneau, the race is funded by three cash sources of relatively equal size: corporate sponsorships, municipal cash from start and finish cities, and the provincial government of Alberta.
“It’s simple — if we don’t make the money, we can’t spend the money,” Vienneau says. “With the recession, we don’t have the same funding.”
Summit finishes put serious financial burdens on a bicycle race, because the race must sacrifice payment from a potential finishing city. According to the Calgary Herald, towns pay approximately $150,000 CAD (about $115,000) to host a finish of the Tour of Alberta.
Climbs and mountainous terrain are also at odds with the race’s goals. The government of Alberta wants the race to keep visiting new cities, Vienneau says, rather than sticking with the same climb-heavy routes. In 2015 the race visited the Canadian Rockies and featured two summit finishes.
“Our job is to spread the race out over the entire province, so there are years when we just aren’t going to go into the mountains,” Vienneau says. “If we go to the same place, hit the same climb year after year, our funding might go out.”
If the race had a private ownership model, that may not be the case. Alberta’s population is centered primarily around Calgary and Edmonton. The provincial government steers the race to visit some of the smaller communities, such as Lethbridge, Drayton Valley, and Kananaskis. If it were a private model, the race would likely stay near the population centers.
“If we were similar to [the Amgen Tour of] California we’d try to have at least one mountain stage each year, Viennau says.
Viennau is confident that the race can rebound from 2016 to grow back to its six-stage format next year. He also believes that climbs and summit finishes will return. The race’s other goal is to someday grow beyond its 2.1 rating on the UCI calendar. That rating is similar to European races such as the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon and Tour of Yorkshire. A bump up to 2.HC — which would put it alongside the Tour of Utah — is a goal.
“We talk about [2.HC] all of the time,” Viennau says. “Right now we need to make sure we’re 100% sustainable with the current model before we can grow.”