Mountain showdown awaits in Utah

The Tour of Utah heads into the Wasatch Mountains for what has become a defining feature of the race: its thrilling high-altitude conclusion

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

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SALT LAKE CITY (VN) — In its 11-year tenure, the Tour of Utah has expanded, ventured out of state, and dramatically increased its international ranking. It began as a three-day regional race and now is rated in difficultly just below the stage races of the WorldTour.

One reason: Since 2010, the now seven-day event has built on its race-ending tradition — finishing high into the Wasatch Mountains. The tradition will continue this year.

After five days of high-speed maneuvering north to south through the state, the weekend stages 6 and 7 will feature a combined eight climbs, including HC efforts in both Saturday’s stage 6 and Sunday’s concluding stage 7.

After early category 4 and 3 climbs in stage 6, the real showdown will begin with about 31 miles left in the 110.4-mile effort from Salt Lake City to Snowbird. The field will negotiate a nearly four-mile climb to Guardsman Pass (elevation 9,638 feet), a category 1 ascent. The stage ends with an HC finale to the Snowbird ski resort perched at 7,767 feet.

With the general classification contenders likely determined, the race will conclude with a 78-mile road race beginning and ending in Park City. The field will negotiate a category 1 effort to Wolf Creek Ranch about halfway through the stage. Thirty-five miles later comes the final climb, an HC effort to Empire Pass (elevation 8,942 feet). The race will end with a steep descent to the Park City finish line.

The riders know the general classification will unfold on the weekend, but this year’s event is without a list of sure-fire favorites — though, barring the extraordinary, it’s also a sure thing Jure Kocjan won’t be in contention.

“The climbs are long and steep,” said Kocjan (SmartStop), the Slovenian veteran who won stage 2 and assumed the race lead after finishing third in stage 4. “They are too hard for me. It’s everything. I am just a different kind of rider.

“I am more of a sprinter, so I like short climbs or sprints. For the longer climbs, I am too heavy and a different kind of rider. I think I will have my teammates before the climb to give them back what they gave me for the first five stages.”

Chris Horner (Airgas-Safeway) and Frank Schleck (Trek Factory Racing) are predicted to show their career-long climbing skills. But both riders have been stalled by injuries this season.

Schleck finished third in 2011 Tour de France, but his ninth-place stage efforts in the Tour of Norway and Trofeo Serra de Tramontana are his top results this season. He has rehabilitated his knee and leg ligament damage after crashing at Liège-Bastogne-Liège in April, and he’s competing in the Tour of Utah for the first time.

“I have seen a few of the climbs,” said Schleck, who spent 10 days prior to the event training in the Park City area. “A lot of people ask to compare the climbs here to the Alps or the Pyrenees. You can’t. You have climbs, yes. But you just go up there and then come down again from the altitude. So you cannot really compare anything to it here at altitude, so it’s special”

Horner had a fourth-place stage effort at the Tour of the Gila in early May and then finished fourth overall Tour of Azerbaijan a week later. But the 43-year-old former Vuelta a España winner is racing for the first time since late May after being beset with respiratory issues.

Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale-Garmin), who has three top 10 GC finishes this season, placed fourth overall at the Tour of Utah in 2012. The 24-year-old, who will ride in his first grand tour in two weeks at the Vuelta, is now his team’s leader with the pre-race departure of two-time defending champion Tom Danielson via an out-of-competition positive drug test.

Brent Bookwalter (BMC), who has three top five stage finishes this week, finished fourth at the recent Tour of Austria, his best overall finish in recent years at an event with mountains.

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