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By Neal Rogers
It’s not often that a domestic event strives for UCI stage-race designation, falls short on sponsorship, is cancelled and then returns the following year as the country’s highest-elevation stage race. But that’s exactly what the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah has gone through in recent years.
After going national in 2006, the Tour of Utah was postponed last year when race owners determined the event was not ready due to fiscal troubles.
However the five-stage event, which touts itself as “America’s Toughest Stage” with more than 330 miles and 30,000 feet of elevation gain, returns Wednesday with a $75,000 prize list, the National Racing Calendar’s richest men’s-only purse.
Last year the race’s chairman, Greg Miller of the Larry H. Miller Group, appointed veteran Utah bike racer, coach and cycling advocate Terry McGinnis as the race’s executive director. Zions Bank returns as presenting sponsor.
McGinnis told VeloNews last year that the costs of putting on a UCI stage race, on the scale of the Amgen Tour of California or Tour de Georgia, would ultimately triple the Tour of Utah’s budget.
“Greg Miller is very passionate about the sport,” McGinnis said. “He really loves cycling, loves the sport, and was determined to keep this race alive. He pulled the plug last year because he only wants to put on a good race, and he didn’t think he could put on the race that it deserves to be.”
Few, if any, North American stage races can claim to be contested in the high mountains as the Tour of Utah can. With climbs reaching 8000 feet and a shortened final time trial, the Tour of Utah will favor climbers acclimated to high elevation — North America’s top sprinters will instead be fighting it out at this weekend’s national criterium championships in Downer’s Grove, Illinois.
High-elevation specialists on the start list include Garmin Chipotle’s Tom Danielson, Tom Peterson and recently crowned U23 national time trial champion Peter Stetina; Rock Racing’s Tyler Hamilton, Cesar Grajales and Oscar Sevilla; Toyota-United’s Chris Baldwin, Chris Wherry and Justin England; BMC Racing’s Jeff Louder and Darren Lill; Health Net-Maxxis riders Rory Sutherland, Matt Cooke and Phil Zajicek; Team Type 1’s Moises Aldape; Anthony Colby (of the Fan Sports Network composite team); and Bissell’s Burke Swindlehurst, who helped design several stages and serves as the event’s technical director.
While stages 1 and 3 are likely to result in field sprints, stages 2, 4 and the final stage 5 time trial are each expected to prove decisive in determining the general classification.
Stage 2, from Ogden to Salt Lake City, dishes up four climbs, with the day’s hardest coming close the stage’s finale. Stage 4, the queen stage of the race, is a brute with five KOM summits and 14,778 feet of climbing in 99 miles on the way to the finish at Snowbird Ski Resort. Stage 5, a time trial shortened from 12 to 7.5 miles due to traffic control issues, takes place at the Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele and could well determine the overall winner.
Former winners Andy Bajadali (2005) and Scott Moninger (2006) will not be racing in Utah. But with a roster that also boasts breakaway stars from last month’s Tour de France Danny Pate and Will Frischkorn, as well as 2006 Utah Snowbird stage winner Blake Caldwell and utility man Jason Donald, Garmin-Chipotle looks, on paper, to be the team to beat.
Danielson, who was disappointed in June upon learning that he was not selected for Garmin’s Tour de France team, has been rigorously training in his new hometown of Boulder, Colorado, mixing in motor-pacing, double days and local racing. And though he’s never raced the Tour of Utah, Danielson enters the race alongside Rock’s Sevilla as a big favorite.
“The first time this race was held at the national level, high-altitude mountain goat Scott Moninger won,” Danielson said. “I love high-altitude mountain goat climbing, but American stage racing has always been on the short side in terms of big mountain climbs. Garmin-Chipotle is bringing have an amazing team. I’m excited to have guys like Pete [Stetina] and Blake Caldwell do great rides in a field like this. They are some of the best climbers in the country. It’s exciting to race with young guys like this, as well as experienced guys like Danny [Pate] and Will [Frischkorn]. We know we have some big challenges ahead, with the weather, the heat, the climbing, the altitude and the competition.”
Danielson conceded that Rock Racing looks to be the team to challenge, but added that, “it’s certainly going to be more than just Garmin-Chipotle versus Rock Racing.”
“[Toyota-United’s] Chris Baldwin could do a good ride, and Health Net is bringing Phil Zajicek, who is always a classy rider, along with Rory Sutherland,” Danielson said. “I don’t know how Rory is riding right now, but earlier this season he was going as fast as anyone I’ve ever seen in Europe.”
Hamilton, who won China’s high-elevation Tour of Qinghai Lake last month, has been struggling with a stomach virus since returning from China and said that although he would start the race in Utah, the strength of his performances remain in doubt.
“I raced in Elk Grove two weeks ago and really didn’t feel myself,” Hamilton said. “This week my stomach has been really been bothering me, so I’m heading in to have some tests done. I’ve been trying to wait it out, but I’d better take care of it now.”
Instead, Hamilton pointed to Sevilla, who has been training at altitude in Colombia, as Rock Racing’s team leader.
“Before we raced in China, Sevilla didn’t train at altitude, and he did really well, he was really strong,” Hamilton said. “And ever since he’s been altitude training in Columbia, so he should be very good.”
Rock Racing is also bringing three-time national champion Freddie Rodriguez, who could figure in the stage 1 and 3 field sprints.
Hamilton predicted that Garmin would probably present Rock with its biggest challenges.
“With Danielson, I’m not sure how he’s feeling, whether or not he’s bringing his A game. Then again, even his B game could be good enough. I’ve seen some of those young guys on Garmin. Guys like Peter Stetina; he’s ready.”
Danielson had a different take.
“I feel like I have my A game again,” he said, “and now that I’ve got it, I’m not about to let it go away.”
Like Danielson, Hamilton also pointed to Toyota’s Baldwin, who he trains with in their hometown of Boulder, Colorado.
“Baldwin is looking really good,” Hamilton said. “We motor paced the other day, and I wished I looked like him on the bike.”
One team that should not be underestimated is BMC Racing. Louder and Lill finished second and third at the last mountainous NRC stage race, July’s Cascade Classic, behind Astana’s overall winner Levi Leipheimer.
For over a week the BMC team has been living and training at altitude in the Utah Mountains, preparing themselves for the challenging stages. Utah native and resident Jeff Louder has been contributing his local knowledge to the camp by helping organize team rides and giving an insider’s view of the race’s climbs.
“The camp has been going really well,” Louder said. “We’ve been acclimatizing to the altitude, everyone is in good spirits, and we’ve certainly confirmed that the race will be very, very hard.”
With riders who live at altitude like Louder, Lill and Jonathan Garcia as well as talented climbers like Steve Bovay and Scott Nydam on the roster, BMC team director Gavin Chilcott said Utah is a race the ream can “realistically win.” Two of BMC’s riders, Garcia and Nydam, found their first national-level success at the 2006 Tour of Utah.
“We not only have a team of good climbers, but a group of guys who perform very well at high altitude,” Chilcott said. “And those two things don’t always go hand in hand. There are some really big, hard stages during the event and on a sporting level the race will be extremely interesting and difficult.”
Stage 1: Utah Sports Commission Road Race
The opening stage, starting and finishing in Nephi, should be for the sprinters. This “flat” road race showcases the rural Sanpete County, rolling through several small towns along its 101-mile length. Wind, heat and the small rollers will make this a demanding stage.
Distance: 101.8 miles
Elevation gain: 4851 feet
Start Time: 10 a.m.
Stage 2: University Health Care Road Race
A classic training ride for local cyclists beginning in historic downtown Ogden and ending in Salt Lake City, the University Health Care Road Race takes on four difficult climbs, with the first starting at mile six. Riders will tackle North Ogden Pass, around the scenic Pineview reservoir and climb over Trappers Loop before riding through the beautiful Morgan valley followed by East Canyon reservoir and the toughest climb of the day, Big Mountain. After a fast descent down Emigration Canyon riders will finish at the University Health Orthopedic center in Research Park.
Distance: 84.6 miles
Elevation gain: 10,585 feet
Start Time: 11 a.m.
Stage 3: Salt Lake Downtown Criterium
This fast, four-cornered 1-mile criterium course encircles downtown Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande Depot, featuring a fast, two-block track perfect for viewers. Located perfectly near shops, restaurants and bars, this course will be a spectator’s delight and great evening entertainment for visitors and residents alike.
Distance: 90 minutes, equaling 40 miles, plus or minus
Elevation gain: N/A
Start Time: 7 p.m.
Stage 4: Park City to Snowbird
The Queen Stage of the Tour of Utah is a brute, with 14,778 feet of climbing in 98 miles. Riders will see five KOM’s on their way to the finish at beautiful Snowbird Ski Resort in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Along the way they will tackle the tough climb past Sundance ski resort, up and over the Alpine loop into American Fork Canyon.
Distance: 98.1 miles
Elevation gain: 14,778 feet
Start Time: 10 a.m.
Stage 5: KJZZ Time Trial
The final stage, a 7.5-mile time trial, could be pivotal, even after 30,000 feet of climbing in the previous four days. This mostly flat time trial will start and finish at the new Miller Motorsports Park. Strong winds and August heat will make this mile effort a tough one for the competitors and very well could decide the overall winner.
Distance: 7.5 miles
Elevation gain: 250 feet
Start Time: 10 a.m.
Past Tour of Utah winners
2004: John Osguthorp, Healthy Choice
2005: Andy Bajadali, Vitamin Cottage
2006: Scott Moninger, Health Net-Maxxis
For complete start list, click here.
For more information about the Tour of Utah, stage profiles and other details, visit www.tourofutah.com.