Levi Leipheimer versus the world at Tour of Utah

Can a Tour de France podium finisher ride solo to an overall victory in the high mountains of northern Utah?

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Can a Tour de France podium finisher ride solo to an overall victory in the high mountains of northern Utah? To do so, Levi Leipheimer will have to outfox a 143-man field that includes previous Tour of Utah champs Jeff Louder (BMC Racing) and Francisco Mancebo (Canyon Bicycles), among an elite selection of U.S. based stage racers.

Arguably the most difficult non-UCI stage race in the States, the sixth Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah kicks off Tuesday at the State Capitol above Salt Lake City. Over the next six days, riders will face more than 20,000 vertical feet of climbing in three road stages, a hot, exposed desert time trial and a downtown criterium at 7,000 feet elevation that climbs 120 feet per lap. At stake is the prestige of stage and GC wins in “America’s Toughest Stage Race” and a $45,000 purse.

Can Levi turn around a disappointing Tour?

At the top of the overall contenders list is Radioshack’s Levi Leipheimer. The three-time Tour of California winner is coming off a disappointing month in France, where crashes and illness took him out of the overall picture. Leipheimer will be solo and while he may be the strongest time trialist of the GC favorites, he’ll have to rely on his friends in the peloton for support.

Mancebo and Louder are among the second-tier contenders. Mancebo has been off the U.S. radar in 2010, racing primarily in Latin America and Europe. He called competition director Burke Swindlehurst repeatedly this summer and found a place on the local Canyon Bicycles team, who will also bring dominant amateur Michael Olheiser to the race. Louder has struggled in his full-time return to Europe this season. He started to come around at the Tour de Wallonie and has been prepping at elevation at Brighton Ski Area and Park City. The motivation of his home race and the passing of his good friend and former race director Terry McGinnis may be enough to carry him to the top of the GC.

Last year’s runner-up Darren Lill and his Fly V Australia teammate Phil Zajicek are always threats when the road turns up. Both are talented TT riders and Lill told VeloNews from Snowbird last week that he has been on near top form since last month’s Cascade Classic. The Australian outfit has proven to be the top stage race squad on the U.S. circuit this year, and their roster is built for a run at the overall.

Last, but not least of the favorites is Marc de Maar (UnitedHealthcare-Maxxis). The Dutchman, who will join Quick Step in 2011, won a stage at Cascade and nearly stole the queen stage in California with a long two-up move that he drove into Big Bear Lake Village. De Maar supported overall winner Rory Sutherland at Cascade and a team of strong all-rounders, including Sutherland, should protect him in all but the most frenzied high mountain moments.

There will no doubt be surprises in Utah. In 2009, BMC’s collegiate star Brent Bookwalter took out the prologue and a year later finished second in the Giro d’Italia opener. Alex Howes (Holowesko Partners) choked down a hotdog hand-up and attacked for the stage win on the Snowbird climb last year and soon after signed a three-year deal to carry him into the ProTour with Garmin-Transitions in 2011.

Riders on the VeloNews radar for a breakthrough this year include Volta Tarragona stage winner Carter Jones (KFAN-teamgive), Nevada City Classic winner Ian Boswell (Bissell) and Tour do Rio runner-up Chris Jones (Team Type 1).

23k of up

The Utah parcours is an absolute killer. With more than 23,000 vertical feet of climbing and hot, windy valley roads, the tour is one of the purest tests of the GC riders in North America. Competition director and KFAN-teamgive rider Burke Swindlehurst called this the hardest Tour of Utah ever. “Every day is a GC day,” he said. “There isn’t a single day on there where you can’t possibly win the race or possibly lose the race if you’re a guy looking at GC.”

Prologue: Utah State Capitol
August 17, 6:00 p.m.
2.8 miles

The Capitol prologue is unique in American racing. The short effort starts with a steep ramp that gains the main drag on Bonneville Boulevard via a 100-foot section of sidewalk. The out-and-back on Bonneville is a very slight incline/decline with a tight turnaround. A hard left turn onto the finish descent tripped some riders up in 2009, including Lill.

Stage winner Brent Bookwalter led four BMC Racing riders in the top 10 of the opener last year. Fifth place Louder called the prologue “one of the most technical parts of the race.” The 2008 overall winner’s close friend and former race director Terry McGinnis passed away after a private battle with cancer in the offseason. “I know that Terry McGinnis put a lot of work into making that (prologue) happen the way that it did, like with the sidewalk and all of that, and it’s sort of his legacy, so to speak,” said Louder.

Stage 1: Ogden to Salt Lake City
August 18, 11:00 a.m.
85.2 miles

Blake Caldwell and Darren Lill jumped away from a small group on the Big Mountain climb in 2008, earning the former the leader’s jersey, which he only ceded to Louder in the final stage time trial. The Big Mountain stage proved even more decisive in 2009 when Mancebo locked into the overall lead for the duration after teammate Oscar Sevilla and he snuck away from the peloton high on the climb.

Swindlehurst expected a more guarded bunch this year. “I expect after last year, guys will be a little more on their toes.”

The Big Mountain stage starts with a new 7.4-mile neutral section from Ogden’s Union Station. The consistent climb up Ogden Canyon to Huntsville opens the legs up before the race’s first sprint point near the base of Old Snowbasin Road. Unlike 2009, Swindlehurst expected the climbers to try and thin the herd on the first KOM climb to Snowbasin Ski Area, which begins at mile 18.

From the summit, a fast, four-lane descent delivers riders to the exposed, rolling terrain of the Morgan Valley and the second sprint point in the town of Morgan. After surmounting a gradual rise around East Canyon Reservoir, riders face the Big Mountain climb, the second – and most critical – of the day’s two 2,500 vertical foot ascents.

“If history tells anything, going over Big Mountain in the lead is a good way to take the jersey,” said Louder, of the summit, which stands 17 miles from the finish. “That said I don’t know how people do it because that’s a long way.” The descent of Emigration Canyon is somewhat technical, but is often wind swept. The Rock Racing duo made time on the chase group in a consistent headwind.

Stage 2: Thanksgiving Point to Mt. Nebo
August 19, 10:00 a.m.
78.5 miles

Mancebo and Sevilla paid for their Emigration effort on Mt. Nebo last year and with a shorter, steeper southern ascent on the table in 2010, riders going too deep in stage 1 will likely pay a severe price the next day. Stage 2 again starts in Thanksgiving Point and rolls through two intermediate sprints on the west side of Utah Lake before beginning the 20-mile ascent east of Nephi.

The southern ascent is consistently steeper than last year’s route and lacks much of the rolling terrain and descending near the summit. The first half of the climb is the most consistently steep; a winter closure gate marks the beginning of a roughly five-mile section of ten-plus-percent grades. Lill, who first rode the climb two weeks ago, hoped to break things up there, but avoid the extended solo endeavour.

“The first part of the climb is definitely steeper and more consistent than anything on the other side,” said the South African. “I hope it will be decided by then with a selection, if I have it may way, of maybe three to five guys left at the top of that section.”

The middle section of the ascent tapers off slights before a series of short, steep ramps and sub-one-minute descents face riders high on the mountain. If the selection is not made early, a solo rider or small group could use these pitches to pry riders off their wheel(s) and make serious time.

Stage 3: Miller Motorsports Park Time Trial
August 20, 6:30 p.m.
9.2 miles

The stage 3 time trial is one of the more technical individual tests on the national circuit. The first half of the course runs the parameter of the racetrack before riders roll onto the wide, sweeping tarmac. The stage starts at 6:30 p.m., but blazing temperatures in 2009 made hydration and cooling strategies during warm-ups key. Tom Zirbel won the TT last year, while Mancebo put in a surprisingly solid ride to maintain his overall lead.

Louder struggled in the time trial last year and pointed to the stage as one of the most interesting and challenging TT’s in the States. “It’s like any racetrack,” he said. “It’s made for cars, it’s banked and open and really it’s about picking your line. You stay in the bars almost the entire race and it’s about power… and aerodynamics of course.”

“Levi will probably be the biggest competition for the overall win,” said Lill. “He’s so good in the TT and even if he’s not going 100 percent, he’s still probably not going that badly. It’ll be difficult to ride away from someone like that on the climbs. If I had my way, I’d want to try to put some time into him on the climbs so I don’t have to worry about trying to match him in the time trial.”

Utah has seen unusually wet weather lately and Swindlehurst said that the threat for a late-day downpour is very real. Oil is a consideration on the surface of any auto track and things could get sideways with water on the tarmac. “That is the one stage that is going to start fairly late, so we could encounter some of this monsoon rain and winds,” he said. “I’m bracing myself for anything.”

Stage 4: Downtown Park City Criterium
August 21, 4:30 p.m.
75 minutes

The benign downtown Salt Lake criterium is replaced this year with a brutal test at 7,000 feet elevation in downtown Park City. The course features 120 feet of climbing per lap and almost exclusively follows the 2009 neutral loop up Main Street and down Swede Alley for 75 minutes.

“I’d be surprised if 30 guys made it through the entire thing,” said Louder. “It’s going to be really, really hard – just a battle of attrition.”

Will the GC riders race the criterium all-out? There is little doubt that a number of riders trying to crack the podium will want to make the stage hard – and catch at least one of the pure climbers out on the high-speed, technical lower portion of the figure-eight. Zajicek, de Maar and Sutherland have proven they can ride a hard crit at the front. Jones, Leipheimer, Lill and Mancebo are more of a question mark, particularly Leipheimer who won’t have a team to support him should he run into trouble late.

Like most of the contenders, Lill thinks that the penultimate stage will factor heavily in the final GC, but the looming final day may limit the efforts of the overall riders. “I think it’s almost going to be a GC crit,” he said. “It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be interesting to see how the guys race it actually because the next day is the queen stage and people I’m sure are going to be thinking about that as well.”

Swindlehurst didn’t expect the group to lay off, particularly with the thousands of fans expected to line the circuit. “I anticipate the crowd is going to be really good there, which is like throwing fuel on the fire with bike racers,” said Swindlehurst. “We definitely feed off that.”

Stage 5: Park City to Snowbird
August 22, 11:00 a.m.
102.5 miles

The queen stage of the tour and possibly the NRC comes Sunday. Many riders point to the 102-mile slog over three KOM climbs and 11,000 vertical feet of climbing as the most challenging of the domestic season. A series of steep, half-mile ramps carry an aggressive peloton out of Park City as the day’s break will fight to establish itself. Two sprint points lie in the 60-mile run-in to the day’s first categorized climb at Sundance Resort.

The peloton squeezes onto the narrow, two-lane road at the base of the Alpine Loop as they begin the climb toward the high elevation aspen forests near Sundance. “You know pretty quick as soon as you make that turn what kind of legs you’re going to have,” said Swindlehurst. “You’re always praying coming into that turn, ‘How are the legs, how are the legs?’ and boom as soon as you make that turn, you know.”

Riders climb more than 2,800 feet over almost nine miles beneath Mount Timpanogos. On the upper reaches of the ascent the road narrows to a single, crowd-lined lane and a sharp attack can spring riders out of sight in a matter of seconds.

A dangerous, single-lane descent drops riders onto the western slope of the Wasatch and the suburban lead up to the exposed Suncrest KOM. The climb to Traverse Ridge is (only) 1,000 feet, but wind and temperatures over 100 F usually turn the day’s second categorized climb into a suffer fest. “That’s one climb where you’ll see guys in the gutter groveling on the wheel in front of them,” said Swindlehurst. “It’s never been decisive climb for the leaders; it’s the kind of climb where if you’re struggling that day it might be the straw that breaks the camels back.”

A winding trip through the eastside neighborhoods of the greater Salt Lake area leads riders to the final climb, the 10-mile, nearly 3,000-vertical-foot wretch up Little Cottonwood Canyon to Snowbird Resort. Howes attacked the break that included Swindlehurst low in the canyon last year to take his breakthrough NRC win. Meanwhile, Mancebo came through the remnants of the group on the climb to finish third and secure his overall title.

“There’s no hiding up Snowbird, particularly after going up over Alpine Loop and Traverse Ridge,” Louder said. “Those are two hard climbs at the end of a hard week.”

Lill called the climb a grovel – whether the suffering is coming on the front or the back of the race. “It’s one of the hardest climbing days of any race in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s harder than the last day of Gila.” With a solid statement from this year’s Gila Monster stage winner, the queen stage of the tour will no doubt be a fight to the death for the overall contenders and the stage hunters.

The final day is long and hard. Only the elite can hope to finish anywhere near the front of the race. With years of grand tours in his legs and motivation from a Tour let down driving him, Leipheimer is the strongest rider on paper in the finale. The Radioshack veteran has never been known for aggression, however, and if he is trailing in the GC, he may find it difficult to pull time out of his rivals on the last climb. Louder won here in 2008, but if an early break gets a large enough cushion, we could see a stage hunter pull the win while the GC riders duke it out down the road.

Whichever rider, whether one of the pre-race favorites or a surprise contender, stamps his name on the Snowbird climb at the end of an extremely difficult week will also stamp his name in the history books of what has become arguably America’s second hardest race.

Stay tuned to VeloNews.com for full coverage from the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, including daily video updates, Casey B. Gibson galleries, race reports and results and exclusive interviews.

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