Can an elite cycling stage race help diversify Alberta's economy?

Men in Lycra to the rescue.

(Photo: Daniele Badolato/AP)

(Photo: Daniele Badolato/AP)

Every Alberta premier for a generation has talked about diversifying the economy to reduce the province’s dependence on oil and gas. The resulting policy actions have had at best mixed results. Unveiling a budget pinched by falling energy revenues last month, Premier Alison Redford renewed the diversification battle cry.

The latest to answer the call, though, is a bit of a head-scratcher: teams of hardbodies on featherlight bikes. Backed by $3.5 million from the Rural Alberta Development Fund (a 2007 creation designed to stimulate non-energy investment), the six-stage Tour of Alberta cycling race aims to generate not only thrills for sports fans, but economic diversification through community involvement, corporate sponsorships, 300,000 expected spectators and a telecast to reach 30 million viewers in 100 countries.

Running Sept. 3–8, the race has 11 communities serving as official hosts with a festival component showcasing local food, attractions and entertainment. Elite cycling teams, including those that compete in the Tour de France, have been invited. “The opportunity to bring a world-class event to these communities and put them on a world stage is phenomenal,” says Adam Walker, project manager at the fund.

Using a stage race to boost business activity in small towns is not as crazy as it sounds, says Victoria Calvert, a business professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University. “Exposing international visitors to these areas uplifts the Alberta brand,” she says. “It ties in well with what many of these municipalities are trying to do to increase their visibility.”

Calvert, along with colleague Kalinga Jagoda, recently completed research on business retention and development in 13 rural communities. From an economic standpoint, Calvert thinks events like the tour are “absolutely the thing that’s necessary to enhance economic sustainability.” For starters, it will increase demand for goods and services before, during and while wrapping up the event. “Plus, there’s trickle-down effect where you’ve raised awareness with people who will be back,” she adds.

But will rural Alberta, not known as a cycling hotbed, grab the bike by the handlebars? “The response we have received from small communities has been amazing,” affirms Duane Vienneau, executive director of the Alberta Peloton Association, which is organizing the race. “The Tour of Alberta is a world-class cycling race, but it is also six days of fun with broad appeal.”

To really capitalize on the opportunity, Calvert stresses, host communities need to band together and leverage the exposure with group marketing that showcases unique local products and tourism offerings.

Men in Lycra riding to Alberta’s economic rescue. Who would have thought?