The most respected mountain climbers are gearing up for the start of one of the toughest stage races in the nation, the Tour of Utah. Set to begin on August 18 in Salt Lake City, the race will see an unprecedented number of participants.
170 riders will take on the six stages, including two individual time trials and two mountain top stage finishes. Defending Champion, Jeff Louder (BMC) comes into the race as the obvious favorite, but will be up against the highest quality field the race has seen in its history.
"It really grew beyond what we thought it would," said Terry McGinnis, race director. "Honestly, I had invited a few amateur teams early on because was concerned that I wasn't going to be able to fill my field with the economy being so hard on the teams this year. But then I started getting all theses team wanting to come.
"It grew to 22 teams and we have a very high quality peloton. We had a good group last year but this rivals anything you will see in North America, with the exception of the Tour of California and the Tour of Missouri. I couldn't be happier."
Louder, who resides in Salt Lake City, and his BMC team made use of some downtime prior to the event's start date to prepare for Utah's high altitude and to preview the decisive climbs. The team includes Brent Bookwalter, Steve Bovay, Jonathan Garcia, Ian McKissick, Jackson Stewart, Chris Barton and Chad Beyer.
"I certainly think that BMC is the premier team," said McGinnis. "It's obvious they take this race seriously and all their best riders will be here. To spend two weeks up here prior to an event indicates how tough they are going to be to beat. I would rank them as the team to beat for sure."
Spaniard Oscar Sevilla (Rock Racing) recently won the Cascade Cycling Classic and is eyeing the overall win in Utah, a race of very similar terrain. He will have the backing of a full team including all-rounders Francisco Mancebo and Victory Hugo Pena.
This season, the U23 teams have made their mark on the professional peloton and none has been better than the Felt-Holowesko Partners-Garmin team. The young men will bring their two recently crowned US U23 National Champions, Peter Stetina and Alex Howes. They proved they belong on the podium at the Cascade Cycling Classic last month where they captured three of the four overall jerseys and several podium places.
Another Salt Lake City native, Dave Zabriskie (Garmin-Slipstream) will be riding without teammates this week but that is not expected to put any dents in his ability to shine in the mountains and in the time trial. His impressive results as a stage winner of the Tour de France and yellow jersey holder are a good indication that he should not be discounted for the overall win.
National Racing Calendar (NRC) leader Tom Zirbel (Bissell) won the closing time trial in last year's event. This year, the individual specialist will no doubt put on a show for the crowds with another smashing performance during stage three's Miller Sports Park race way time trial.
Other strong overall contenders include Chris Baldwin and Pat McCarty (OUCH p/b Maxxis), Phil Zajicek and Ben Day (Fly V Australia), Reid Mumford and Andrew Bajadali (Kelly Benefit Strategies), Moises Aldape and Darren Lill (Team Type 1), Taylor Phinney and Bjorne Selander (Trek-Livestrong), Anthony Colby and Tyler Wren (Colavita-Sutter Home) and Justin England (California Giant Berry Farms).
Riders in attendance from the amateur ranks include Nick Frey (Ciclismo Racing), Corey Collier (Team Rio Grande), Benjamin Bradshaw (Team Waste Management), Matt Cooke (Ride Clean), Will Routley (Trek Red Truck), Nic Clayville (Bobs-Bicycles), Stefano Barberi (ZteaM), Aaron Olson (KFAN Composite), David Clinger (Cole Sport) and Cameron Hoffman (Canyon Bicycle All Stars).
When you thought it couldn't get tougher, it did!
On August 18, the Tour of Utah introduced the addition of a prologue to kick off the six-stage race in downtown Salt Lake City. The short 4.5 kilometre route heads over relatively flat roads. It might be short, but surely not painless and will no doubt sort out the strong contenders.
August 19, the 137-kilometre first stage was considered less of a challenge compared to the other more mountainous stages. However, the distance between Ogden and Salt Lake City offers two challenging mid-race climbs.
Stage two from Thanksgiving Point to Mount Nebo will start the peloton on a relatively flat opening 100 kilometres. However, it finishes with a challenging 20-kilometre climb up Mount Nebo where the riders will hit the highest elevation of the race at the line, 8500 feet.
The third stage takes place at the Miller Sports Park for a 14-kilometre individual time trial. Last year the time trial was saved for the final stage and it was tough enough to cause some significant changes to the overall classifications. This year, the event is held mid-race and will give the specialists an opportunity to taste the yellow leader's jersey.
Stage four will take riders from Park City to Snowbird Ski Resort for the ‘queen stage.' It is the longest in distance at 155-kilometres and incorporates more than 6,000 feet of climbing. If that is not enough to crack the majority of the peloton than the final climb up to Snowbird certainly will.
The Tour of Utah will conclude with a 90-minute criterium held on the downtown streets of Salt Lake City. Finally, a day for the sprinters, if there are any left, to put the hurt on the climbers.
"There are about 170 riders so we will probably have to enforce the time cuts rigorously," said McGinnis. "Our race is not really designed for sprinters. Sorry, but they have tons of opportunities during the year for criteriums so we wanted to design a race for the climbers."