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Alberta peloton climbs into unknown in stages 3 and 4

The Tour of Alberta will include two entirely new stages — both of which feature mountaintop finishes that should be decisive.

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GRANDE PRAIRIE, Alberta (VN) — Like many new races, the Tour of Alberta has amended its route, dropping and adding venues depending upon communities’ interests and budgets. And it’s also sought what makes stage races tick — summit finishes.

After preambles and two stages in a community where the oil industry dominates life, the third-year, six-day, 538-mile event will get exactly what it has wanted. Stages 3 and 4, Friday and Saturday, will take the race to Jasper National Park, the Canadian natural treasure, for consecutive mountaintop finishes.

Getting what you ask for occurs in degrees of reality. What the Tour of Alberta will likely get in its first foray into the mountains is inclement weather. Unseasonable snow has fallen in Jasper National Park in the past week, and Friday’s forecast isn’t promising. Rain and overcast skies are predicted with temperatures ranging from 35 to 50 degrees.

“On paper, the stages will be good for me,” said Gavin Mannion (Jelly Belly), who finished fourth overall last month at the USA Pro Challenge and third overall in May at the Tour of the Gila. “There’s a 12km finishing climb one day and a five-kilometer one in the other and a lot climbing before that, too. So, yeah, there’s some real climbs the next two days.”

The 113-mile stage 3 will begin in Grande Cache and advance on Highway 40 into Jasper National Park. The route will include two climbs in the final 10.5 miles. The final ascent is slightly more than three miles with an average eight-percent gradient to the finish at Miette Hot Springs, elevation 4,314 feet.

“The first thing that jumps out at you is the diversity,” said Rob Britton, the Canadian rider for Team SmartStop who competed in the race’s first two years but is not entered this year. “This course is a huge change from the past two editions. Not to take away from the past two years, which was mostly flat, which favored the sprinters, but this is a great stage race with what appears to be a really challenging course.”

Stage 4 will start in the town of Jasper. After about four miles, the peloton will begin three 29-mile circuits in Icefields Parkway. The stage will conclude with a seven-mile climb to Marmot Basin Lodge, elevation 5,570 feet.

“It looks like a very interesting race with two mountaintop finishes and I am happy about that,” said Bauke Mollema, the Dutch rider who assumed the race lead when Trek won the opening team time trial. “I took a break after the Tour de France. This is my first race in a month, and that’s always interesting to see how I ride.”

Ryder Hesjedal, the Canadian veteran competing in his last of eight seasons with Cannondale-Garmin, has never trained or competed on the mountains in the Jasper region. But he welcomes his indoctrination.

“Obviously I’m Canadian, but I still keep exploring my home country,” said Hesjedal at the pre-race press conference. “I’ve come to Grande Prairie for the first time to race my bike here, and riding through Jasper will definitely be something I can check off the list and I’m looking forward to that also.”

Hesjedal, whose climbing skills earned him the 2012 Giro d’Italia title, began the event uncertain of his fitness. But he’s among the overall title favorites with Mollema, Adam Yates (Orica-GreenEdge), Michael Woods (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies), Simon Gesche (Giant-Alpecin), and Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly).

“I hope to be in the mix and contesting the overall, or a high overall placing, you know?” Hesjedal said. “We’re also looking at winning a stage and just getting the most that we can out of the team.”