Lethbridge, Alberta - Colin Joyce scored one of the Axeon Hagens Berman Cycling Team's biggest wins of an already prolific season by out-sprinting 10 others from a breakaway Thursday on the opening stage of the Tour of Alberta presented by ATB Financial.
Joyce and his Specialized S-Works Tarmac beat out WorldTour rider Alex Howes (Cannondale-Drapac Pro Cycling Team) at the end of the 106.9-kilometer circuit race that comprised nine laps of a circuit in Lethbridge. Robin Carpenter (Holowesko-Citadel presented by Hincapie Sportswear) finished third as breakaway arrived more than two minutes ahead of the peloton.
Joyce notched the first UCI victory of his career and Axeon Hagens Berman's 32nd win of the year - a team record in the ninth year of the American Under 23 development squad.
"Alex Howes was coming up on my wheel pretty fast, so that was kind of scary," Joyce said. "But then I saw him beat his handlebars and I thought that meant I held on."
Axeon Hagens Berman General Manager Axel Merckx said he was glad the 22-year-old who lives and trains in Pocatello, Idaho, was able to stay in the front group the last time over the lone climb on the circuit and later when crosswinds sliced the escape group in half.
"I was talking to Colin on the radio and telling him it was all going to come down to the last climb and then whoever had the best legs for the sprint," Merckx said. "I knew Colin had a fast kick. But to beat those guys in that group was a pleasant surprise."
In what was once a breakaway of 29 riders were two of Joyce's teammates, Irish Under 23 national time trial champion Eddie Dunbar - who was celebrating his 20th birthday - and Chad Young. Joyce eventually joined them by bridging the gap with two other riders.
"The team was amazing," Joyce said. "I was definitely kind of stressing the first couple of laps. But those guys were covering everything. Having Eddie and Chad up there was great and when I bridged across, they had a lot of faith in me. So the team absolutely rode amazingly. It was not happening today without them."
In the final breakaway of 11 was a host of talents: defending Tour of Alberta champion Bauke Mollema (Trek-Sagfredo) and his teammate, Frank Schleck, who was third at the 2011 Tour de France; Howes and his teammate, Tom Skujins; past U.S. national criterium champion John Murphy of the UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team and Skydive Dubai Pro Cycling Team's Francisco Mancebo, a past Spanish road champion who finished third at the Vuelta a España in 2004.
Joyce said he was not expecting the race to come down to a sprint.
"Part of me actually thought it was going to be a late breakaway that stuck," he said. "So I was kind of coming around and waiting for a lull to maybe take my own shot at a break. The big one was by Daniel Eaton (UnitedHealthcare) and then Mollema just decided to drill it. I hopped on his wheel and he kept drilling it. He took it to 800 meters and that is when I realized it was going to come down to a little sprint. So I tried to position myself as best as possible. I put my head down and suffered the last 200 meters."
Joyce had come close to posting a big win last month when he was runner-up on the opening stage of the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. Before that, his only other top three result on the year was third at the Tour de Bretagne while racing for USA Cycling's Under 23 squad.
"Colin had a bit of bad luck at the beginning of the season with a few crashes and some illnesses," Merckx said. "At one point, it seemed that he was not going to come out of it. But I told him that things can change so quickly and I think we saw that with this win. It really puts him in the spotlight and makes his season. It is great to see a guy like that accomplish so much with a great result on this level."
With four stages to go, Joyce enjoys an advantage of 2:14 over 86 of the 98 riders in the race. He leads Howes and Carpenter by seven seconds and owns an advantage of 13 seconds or more on the other eight riders from the breakaway.
"We will try to get some sleep and Friday is another day," Merckx said. "But our week is already a success. We will try to put Colin in a good position and see what happens day-to-day."
Merckx, who makes his home near Vancouver, also saw a rider from his development program take a win the last time a stage of the Tour of Alberta finished in Lethbridge, in 2014. That time, it was Ruben Zepuntke who won out in a photo finish in the rain ... Joyce not only earned the leader's yellow jersey for his winning effort - as well as the race's traditional cowboy hat that goes along with it - but he also pulled on the points jersey, while taking the lead in the "best young rider" standings ... Every stage of the race is being televised live. Cyclingfans.com has broadcast sources and times.
(Header photo by Canadian Cyclist.)