EDMONTON, Alberta (VN) — It didn’t start out on the back of a cocktail napkin. Nothing so dramatic. It was just a dream rolling around in the back of Alex Stieda’s head, one both crazy to contemplate and yet not so much that he’d let it die.
A UCI stage race in Alberta. World-class pro cycling on the prairie. In the Badlands. In the Rockies. A way North America’s first maillot jaune wearer in the Tour de France could showcase his newly adopted home province.
“I thought, ‘why not?’” said Stieda, a British Columbia native but an Edmonton resident for the last 15 years. “And the more and more that I socialized with people and talked about it, it started to become real, like it could actually happen.”
On Tuesday, it will. The inaugural Tour of Alberta (UCI North America 2.1), spanning six days on roads from Edmonton to Calgary and tiny hamlets in between, joins the list of new races that are spreading the professional sport into places once thought improbable, if thought of at all.
It has a familiar ring for Brian Jolly, also a former pro and now a UCI commissaire and head of the Alberta Peloton Association, the race’s organizer. He was brought in to lead the board a year ago and was a key figure in bringing the 2003 world championships to Hamilton, Ontario, which at that time led to more than a few scratched heads.
“People were saying, ‘Hamilton? What the hell are we going to Hamilton for?’” Jolly recalled. “And it was one of the most successful world championships ever put on. This is like Hamilton.”
Stieda wasn’t sure what it would be like when he began kicking around the idea to friends. He simply knew he wanted it to happen, somehow.
“I wasn’t going to let up. I kept working on it and working on it, talking with people who’d listen, seeing who was interested,” Stieda said. “It just kind of evolved with a friend of mine, Jared Smith.”
Although Smith, an Edmonton marketing executive, was there at the gestation, he wasn’t totally convinced. “I must admit, when [Stieda] came to me with this dream, I thought he was crazy,” Smith wrote on his company’s blog. But not so much that he dismissed the idea out of hand; he helped Stieda with key introductions and is now a Tour board member.
“Jared was able to link us up with the Rural Alberta Development Fund, and they realized this would be the right thing to do,” Stieda said of the provincial government arm that kicked in $3.5 million in seed money. “They see it as a way to sell Alberta and all the beautiful areas that we have to the rest of the world.”
And to put western Canada on the steadily spreading map of major events around the globe.
“Who would have believed we’d have races in [the] Middle East, China and South America?” Jolly said. “It’s a growing sport across the world and we’re part of that now.”
For the next week, at least. And in Stieda’s mind, at the very least. The high mountains, erased from this year’s planned route by floods that washed out bridges and roads, are the next evolution if this year’s race proves a success.
“The Rockies, of course. That’s a given,” Stieda said. “I would love to see [the race] grow and expand there and elsewhere in Alberta, but I don’t want it to stop there. The next idea would be to connect Alberta and British Columbia, my native province.
“Imagine a western Canadian stage race. How great would that be?”
He’s dreaming again. Or is he?