Sprints and climbs, Optum tries to do it all in Utah

Optum brought a talented climber and several bulky sprinters to a seven-stage race with over 57,000 feet of elevation gain; on Friday, it all made sense

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

KAMAS, Utah (VN) – Dubbed America’s “toughest stage race,” the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah has the reputation for being a climbers’ paradise.

So, it was curious when Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies announced its team roster for the seven-day race — a squad that includes sprinters Eric Young and Brad Huff, as well as thicker men like Mike Friedman and Tom Soladay for a course that features over 57,000 feet of elevation gain.

This was a team that also brought climber Carter Jones, a rider who took overall victory at the mountainous Tour of the Gila in May, the King of the Mountains classification at the 2013 Tour of California in 2013, while finishing eighth overall, and eighth on GC at last year’s Tour of Utah. This is a climbers’ race. Who was going to support Jones when the road turned up?

And then Eric Young blazed to victory in Kamas on stage 5, in front of an international WorldTour field, taking what he called the biggest win of his career. It all made sense.

“In front of a bunch of WorldTour teams, an international field. It feels…pretty good,” he said.

With one kilometer to go, teammate Alex Candelario took Young up the left-hand side of the group, passing everyone.

“That was great, but he’s not going to be able to go out of the saddle for a 1,000 watts for a whole K. He started to run out of gas at that point and then you just have to be a sprinter, you just kind of have to get creative,” Young said.

Young couldn’t jump at 500 meters to go, so in a split second he looked around and found the wheel of Jelly Belly’s Sergei Tvetcov. He latched on.

“I just kind of sat there for a moment, caught my breath; I saw the 300 meter to go sign and I knew that was mostly within my range, so I was like, ‘Alright, we gotta go now!’” Young said.

Even at this point in his career — one that includes national criterium championships in 2011 and 2013 — Young might be more famous for his wins as a student at the University of Indiana at the Little 500, the last of which led his Cutters team to its record-breaking fifth straight win.

Perhaps that will finally end, as his blazing-cadence style propelled him to a world-class win.

“I’ve always had pretty good leg speed. I think it’s just something you’re born with. But today was a hard day, so I was happy to have anything left at the end of the day,” Young said. “Candelario did a great job the whole day of kind of protecting me, especially through that dirt section and the whole last 20K to go, I was just kind of following him through the group and we were always within the top 15. It’s really important to have a teammate like that, he’s so experienced, and this is his last year. It’s been really fun racing with him and to reward the whole team with a win today. It was awesome.”

It wouldn’t have been a victory at all had his team not killed themselves to bring back a powerhouse breakaway featuring Jens Voigt (Trek Factory Racing), Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing), Utah native Jeff Louder (UnitedHealthcare), Kirk Carlsen (Jelly Belly), and Hincapie teammates Oscar Clark and KOM jersey wearer Robin Carpenter.

“It was…unbelievable. We brought our speed team here, and I’ve never seen guys go downhill so fast – I was literally struggling to hold the wheel in front of me,” Jones said.

It wasn’t until they were on that descent that Optum found out that two-time stage winner Moreno Hofland (Belkin), wearer of the points classification jersey, was out of the race. And, then, the gap was growing. Optum’s Jesse Anthony went back to talk to sport director Jonas Carney, and he told Anthony to rally the troops.

“My guys were up to the task; they just kind of manned up and did it,” Young said. “I’m really happy; I would have felt bad if I hadn’t been able to win because they worked really hard.”

Soladay, Friedman, and Anthony went to the front, with help from SmartStop and Garmin-Sharp, and struck out in pursuit of the break, all the way down the descent into Kamas. Then, SmartStop stopped riding. And it was back to just the three Optum men.

“Optum today…. That was really, really impressive. That was a really strong break. Watching those guys bring that break back like they did and then topping it off with a crazy dirt road and all these turns, and all these teams quacking them, and they still win the stage,” said race leader Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp).

But it meant the team exploded. Whereas Jones had the full support of the team yesterday, taking a hard-earned eighth place atop Powder Mountain — a climb he was terrified of, which turned out to be even worse than he anticipated — the team transformed into a sprint team for stage 5.

“They supported me unbelievably all day yesterday. But we got our stage win today, so it’s unbelievable,” Jones said. “We blew our whole team [chasing]. It was pretty terrifying when we turned that [last] corner and into a block crosswind and Alex led it out. We knew Eric was fast, like, really, really fast. We just had to get him a clear shot at the finish line. He took it from so far into the wind that no one could come around him. It was unbelievable.”

Now, the team will turn its attention back to Jones, hoping to protect or improve upon his top-10 standing in the overall classification.

The Boulder, Colorado, resident explained that he didn’t see the need to have a lot of support in the mountains. He was satisfied to have all the pressure on himself to finish off the climbs at the end of the stages. And, with the team they’ve brought, they’ve been close to the podium in three of the five stages thus far, and atop the podium on stage 5.

“When it comes down to the mountains, I don’t need much [support],” Jones said after the stage in Cedar City. “I get to the bottom of the climb and then I go up it as hard as I can. Our sprinters have a shot to shine here. You might as well take the opportunities.”

Optum took the opportunity and came away with a stage win on Friday. Now, the pressure returns to Jones to finish what he came here to do.

“Top five is the big goal, that’s what I’m shooting for. We’ll see how far it can go from there,” he said.

Trending on Velo

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.