08/31/2015 17:21 EDT | Updated 08/31/2016 01:12 EDT

Tour of Alberta's mountains, gravel play to Ryder Hesjedal's strengths

The Tour of Alberta finally sets up well for Canadian cycling star Ryder Hesjedal. He just needs to recover his race legs to take advantage of mountain climbs and dirt roads.

The third edition of the Alberta's stage race opens Wednesday in Grande Prairie, Alta., with a team time trial. The six-day, 900-kilometre event includes 120 riders from 15 teams.

After two years of little elevation gain, the 2015 Tour of Alberta features mountain stages Friday and Saturday in Jasper National Park west of Edmonton.

The riders drop elevation Sunday as they head eastward, but a quarter of that stage will be spent churning over dirt and gravel roads. The race that offers $125,000 in prize money concludes Monday in Edmonton.

Hesjedal became the first Canadian to win one of cycling's three Grand Tours when he claimed the Giro d'Italia in 2012. The 34-year-old from Victoria is a powerful climber and grew up cycling unpaved roads in the Calgary area.

"Definitely the races in Jasper are exciting and I hope to be in mix, and if not contesting the overall, looking at winning a stage and getting the most we can out of the race as a team," Hesjedal said.

"For me, I enjoy it any time the pavement disappears and it turns into dirt road. I simply grew up riding gravel road a lot be it on a mountain bike or road bike. If you've only ever ridden on pavement and you've never touched gravel on a road bike, then it gets a bit complicated. For me, that's not the case."

But Hesjedal wonders how quickly he can recover his race rhythm after taking a break in August.

He built 2015 around peaking for both May's Giro, in which he finished fifth overall, and July's Tour de France. The one-day San Sebastian Classic in Spain on Aug. 1 marked his 77th day of hard racing this year.

Hesjedal went home to Victoria for a breather after the San Sebastian race. He began ramping up his training again recently.

"To be honest, I'm not really sure about my condition right now," the three-time Canadian Olympian said. "I had to take a break after the Tour. I'm doing the best I can to be in the best shape I can and perform in Alberta."

Hesjedal finished 60th in the first Tour of Alberta in 2013, but his teammate Dennis Rohan of Australia took the inaugural crown.

The Canadian passed on Alberta in 2014 to compete in the Tour of Spain. This year's Tour of Alberta will be one of Hesjedal's final races for the Cannondale-Garmin team as he's moving to Trek Factory Racing on Jan. 1.

"This is professional cycling. You're contracted for a certain period," Hesjedal said. "I'll be representing the team I'm on with even more motivation. I've been with this organization, this will be my eighth season and (I) experienced the best moments of my career with this team."

The first two years of the Tour of Alberta included stages around Calgary and as far south as Lethbridge, but this year's race is confined to the area around Alberta's capital city and west to the national park.

The world governing body of cycling, Union Cycliste Internationale, classifies road stage races in four categories with the highest having World Tour status. The Tour of Alberta ranks in the third category because the race includes a number of developmental race teams.

But 2015 Giro stage winners Michael Matthews of Australia and Davide Formolo of Italy are in the field as is Tour de France stage winner Simon Geschke of Germany.

The host country will be represented by two Canadian-based teams — Silber Pro and H & R Block — as well as Canadian riders sprinkled throughout other squads.

Team Optum's Ryan Anderson was third overall in 2014 to repeat as the Tour of Alberta's top Canadian. South Africa's Daryl Impey outsprinted the 28-year-old from Spruce Grove, Alta., and Tom Dumoulin of the Netherlands on the final day to win last year's race.

The finish line of Sunday's fifth stage is in Anderson's hometown of Spruce Grove.

"I think it's going to be quite special," Anderson said. "I hope the day is hard so I have a better shot at the stage.

"You're proud of the race, you're proud of where you came from. My motivation is always extremely high for the Tour of Alberta."


A stage-by-stage look at the 2015 Tour of Alberta:

Stage 1, Wednesday

A team time trial kicks off the third edition of the Tour of Alberta. Each eight-member team races the clock on a flat 19.6-kilometre circuit through Grande Prairie, Alta. The fastest rider on the winning team gains the overall leader's jersey. This stage also serves as a final tune-up for the team time trial at the world championship Sept. 19-27 in Richmond, Va.

Stage 2, Thursday

A leg loosener for the upcoming mountain stages, the 171-kilometre loop through the County of Grande Prairie is mostly flat but there are two 1.5k climbs out of the Wapiti River valley over the final 40. The first King of the Mountain jersey will be awarded from those climbs.

Stage 3, Friday

They'll need a soak in Miette Hot Springs after 182k, much of it uphill. From Grande Cache, Alta., to the hot springs in Jasper National Park, the riders take on two big climbs with the final chug an eight-per-cent grade over the last five kilometres. The first mountain stage in the three-year history of the race is showcase for climbers such as Canada's Ryder Hesjedal.

Stage 4, Saturday

Starting in the mountain town of Jasper, traversing the Icefields Parkway and finishing atop Marmot Basin, the fourth stage is 162k of eye candy for the TV viewer as well as hardship on the cyclists' legs. The last climb to the finish atop the snowboard and ski resort is 12 kilometres long.

Stage 5, Sunday

The mountain stages get all hype, but the penultimate leg is intimidating. The longest leg in race history at 206 kilometres, it features 56 kilometres of dirt road in sections from Edson to Spruce Grove, Alta. Ryan Anderson, the top Canadian the last two years, will be racing into his hometown. A net loss in elevation and a probable tailwind will reduce suffering.

Stage 6, Monday

The finale follows the same 124k course in and around Edmonton as last year, when South Africa's Daryl Impey outsprinted Canada's Anderson and Tom Dumoulin of the Netherlands to claim the overall title and the yellow jersey.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press