The Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah is about to shift the general classification battle into high gear as the race heads back into the mountains for the final two days of racing.
Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly-Maxxis) currently leads the overall standings by nine seconds over Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac) and 34 seconds over Adrien Costa (Axeon Hagens Berman), who dropped from second to third after losing 27 seconds Friday in Bountiful.
Three riders sit 1:32 off the leader, with BMC Racing’s Joey Rosskopf and Darwin Atapuma tied on time with Rally Cycling’s Rob Britton. BMC stagiaire TJ Eisnehart is two seconds further adrift at 1:34.
Robin Carpenter, in eighth place, is 2:11 down, followed by Kiel Riejnen (Trek-Segafredo) at 3:51 and Tao Geogheagn Hart (Axeon Hagens Berman) at 4:11. A group of six riders – including Holowesko’s Rob Squire, UnitedHealthcare’s Janez Brajkovic and Jonny Clarke, Trek’s Peter Stetina and Laurent Didier, and Cannondal’s Joe Dombrowski – are 4:07 down.
These gaps should grow and the names will likely change over the next two days, as riders face the Queen stage in Saturday and the final stage on Sunday. Saturday’s stage throws more than 3,000 metres of climbing at the peloton, including the climbs over Guardsman Pass and up Little Cottonwood Canyon to the finish at Snowbird. This stage has been the launching pad for multiple overall winners, including Dombrowski's solo win here last year.
While not having the volume of climbing as the previous day, stage 7 ends with the climb up Empire Pass, which some consider to be the toughest climb in US Racing. After summiting Empire Pass, a screaming, twisting descent into Park City leads to a new finish on Upper Main Street and the crowning of the 2016 champion.
That’s 5,805.7 metres of climbing in two days.
“It’s pretty straight forward what we have to do,” said Morton. “It’s just a matter of whether the legs stay as good as they have been when it really counts, and the next two days are when it really counts. If you have a bad moment you can lose a few minutes and your race is over in a couple of kilometres.
“I’d say I’m not confident, but I’m also not worried. I think there’s no point being nervous or being worried about it because it’s really straightforward now. Today was a technical day, because if you made a mistake technically you could lose out. But it’s more or less if you’ve got the legs on the next two days.”
Morton’s also got to contend with an onslaught of WorldTour team riders stacked up behind him, while his Continental Jelly Belly team has been working hard since he took the jersey on stage 3. Several riders Cyclingnews spoke with on Friday questioned how long they could keep it up, including Geoghegan Hart.
“Personally, I can’t say I always understand their tactics,” the British U23 champion said. “They have another two big days to ride and they have a rider who can win this race, and they’re chasing down breakaways as if they’re going to try and win the sprint.
“I was a little bit frustrated actually because we had someone up there, and in my opinion there wasn’t a need to keep it so close as they did. If it was our team, we would have gotten some other teams to contribute more, because the closest time in that break was six minutes.”
But Morton told Cyclingnews he has full confidence in his team.
“I’ve got no worry in the team at all,” Morton said. “They’ve got total commitment to me. And they’ve got the ability. And we get more and more confidence every day. So that’s the biggest thing.”
BMC Racing appears to be in prime position to make a run at the general classification, with three riders sitting just over 90 seconds back.
But the main challenge for Morton will obviously come from Cannondale, who has Andrew Talansky sitting in the catbird seat just nine second back. Dombrowski conceded to Cyclingnews on Friday that he’s got a long road ahead if he wants to climb to the top of the GC, but he said he’s not so far back that the other teams can just let him ride away on the climbs. He can still be a good foil for the team’s GC ambitions.
His teammate, Phil Gaimon, said the team is ready to “throw down” this weekend.
“I think Andrew has depth, which is an advantage on these guys,” he said. “Doing all the long stage races and Grand Tours I think will be an advantage like a few days into a race compared to the first couple of climbs.
“I think Joe can do a lot. I don’t necessarily think we’re going to look for him to win, but he can tear guys up on a climb like anybody and that’s what we need.”
Question marks about how Costa will fair over the next two days surfaced on Friday when he cracked on the short steep climb in Bountiful, and slipped to third, but Axeon director Axel Merckx said the team is ready to re-focus and try again.
"Adrien had a little bit of a harder time today, but it is not unexpected at 18 years old,” Merckx said. “The only thing to do now is stay calm and try to recover. He has had a great week and tomorrow is another day.”