Levi Leipheimer, the seasoned veteran of multiple Grand Tours, always knew he was going to have a very difficult time trying to add a third consecutive Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah title to his palmares. Winning never gets easier, he said at the opening press conference for the six-day race that ends Sunday in Park City. And he specifically named the up-and-coming generation of young riders as one of his biggest hurdles.
"The next generation is not just knocking at the door, but I think they've kind of kicked the door down," Leipheimer said. "You saw the Tour de France this year with Tejay [van Garderen], for example, and Joe [Dombrowski] at California, so it's kind of hard to keep that door shut these days."
That door my have been kicked entirely off the hinges Saturday on the climb to Snowbird Ski Area and Summer Resort during the penultimate stage in Utah. Leipheimer finished fifth after Bontrager-Livestrong riders Dombrowski and Ian Boswell dropped him in the final kilometers before the finish. BMC's Johann Tschopp won the 163km stage in four hours, 18 minutes and 20 seconds. Team NetApp's Leopold Koenig came in next, followed closely by the two development team riders.
The day's result was just one more in a long string of successes for the Texas-based development team riders who have more than proved their mettle in some of the country's biggest races this year.
"It's amazing," said team director Axel Merckx after the podium ceremony at Snowbird. "I always say that two years ago we had an exceptional team with Jesse Sergent, Taylor Phinney, Alex Dowsett and those guys. I think this year we've at least equaled that because we are racing bigger events and we are doing some great results. I mean you always hope for the best, but today was exceptional."
Bontrager's success this season started in earnest at the Amgen Tour of California with multiple top 10 finishes, including Dombrowski's fourth place on top of Mt. Baldy in front of some of the best ProTeam riders in the world. It continued at the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico with a one-two finish for Lawson Craddock and Boswell on the Gila Monster stage. Dombrowski finished third overall at the UCI 2.2. race, and Gavin Mannion grabbed fifth.
In July, the team traveled to the Cascade Cycling Classic in Oregon, where it impressed with a 1-2-3 finish by Jasper Stuyven, Craddock and Mannion during the stage that finished on Mt. Bachelor. Craddock took third overall in that race.
The team hasn't slowed down a bit in Utah, a 2.1 UCI-ranked event. Craddock got the ball rolling during stage 1 with a fourth-place finish in Ogden from a select final group of 40 riders. Mannion grabbed third on stage 3 and 12th on stage 4 after Stuyven spent all day in a breakaway that was caught 800 meters from the line.
Then it was Dombrowski's and Boswell's turn. The 21-year-old climbers stuck with the very select lead group that peeled away the chaff on the lower slopes of the the Snowbird climb, eventually passing not only Leipheimer, but also Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan), race leader Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Sharp) and Vande Velde's teammate Tom Danielson, all of whom have finished in the top 10 at the Tour de France.
"Looking back on it, it's a surprise for sure," Dombrowski said after Saturday's stage. "For me and my teammate Ian Boswell to be up there, it says a lot. Because before that selection happened, if you look at who was there, you've got Horner, Danielson, Vande Velde and Levi, and those are the best American stage racers. So for us to be up there with those guys, it's pretty exciting, for sure."
Boswell, who placed second earlier this year with the U23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege while riding with the US National team, said Dombrowski, who won the Baby Giro with the national team, has already proved himself to be one of the best climbers, and now Boswell was looking to do the same after illnesses before the Tour of California hampered his efforts there.
"But I knew that coming into this race I was climbing well," he said. "When I'm on good form I know I can climb with the best guys in the world. It's just a matter of coming out here and doing it again."
The pair will have to do it again on Sunday over what best Utah rider rider Jeff Louder (United Healthcare) referred to as the "King stage" of the race. The 123.5km final stage that starts and finishes in Park City will throw another 2,086 meters of climbing at the peloton. The route covers terrain the race has never visited before, including the Wolf Creek Ranch, a 3.5km climb that hits grades of 22 percent. The daunting Empire Pass climb comes 93km into the race. The 17km ascent to the top of the pass also has grades that reach near 20 percent. It should provide plenty of opportunities for Boswell and Dombrowsski to further prove their climbing prowess.
The pair is also well positioned to climb onto the overall podium if they can put in another world class performance against the world class competition. Dombrowski is currently fifth overall, 58 seconds behind Tschopp. Boswell is 1:03 down in sixth.
"Tactically, tomorrow's going to be a bit odd with the first climb," Boswell said. "Maybe somebody tries to go away there. But other than that it's really just that last hill. It's gonna be on up the hill and making it the best guys. If we have it, we'll attack. It depends on whether we have the energy or not, but we'll give it a go."
Merckx was also cautious in making any predictions about whether his riders could improve on their Saturday performances and climb onto the overall podium, saying they've got a lot of work to do if they want make that step.
"Tschopp is a very strong rider and a very strong athlete," Merckx said. "He's been really tough. For us, if we can keep position and knock on the podium [Sunday] night, I would really respect that. But first we have to wait and see what's going to happen."