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Professional teams across North America are eagerly awaiting the start of one of the toughest stage races in the country, the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah held from August 17-22 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Worth big National Racing Calendar (NRC) points as the final stage race of the series, the Tour of Utah offers more than 30,000 feet of high altitude climbing and has attracted the likes of US national champion George Hincapie (BMC Racing), three-time Tour of California winner Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) and defending champion Francisco Mancebo (Canyon Bicycles).
"We've really tried to put together a field that is going to bring excitement and a high level of competition," said Tour of Utah President, Steve Miller.
"When we started to make the invitations we weren't sure who we were going to get. We were very pleased with our field last year but I feel we have a better field this year."
National Racing Calendar heats up in the mountains
Race organisers went beyond their promise by not only inviting 18 of the top professional men teams in the nation but bringing back the 2008 winner and Salt Lake City native Jeff Louder and his BMC Racing teammate Hincapie along with Leipheimer. Defending champion Francisco Mancebo will be returning with hopes of capturing his second consecutive victory racing with the team Canyon Bicycles to round out an elite 150-rider peloton.
"I believe when we got BMC Racing it made the calibre of the field that much higher," said Miller. "Adding Leipheimer later on, even though he is riding as a solo rider, I don't think anyone could argue with the fact that he raises the level of competition. He brings a lot of intrigue to the race."
The NRC series is coming to an end for the professional men with only one criterium remaining, the Chris Thater Memorial, following the Tour of Utah. The six-stage event could be the only opportunity for individual riders and teams to make significant changes to the overall ranking.
Luis Amaran (Jamis-Sutter Home p/b Colavita) is currently leading the series by 334 points ahead of runner up Rory Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare p/b Maxxis), with an additional 62 points to David Veilleux (Kelly Benefit Strategies) in third place.
Even more exciting is the race between the top three NRC teams. Fly V Australia sits in the top spot with a mere 40-point advantage over last year's winning team Jamis-Sutter Home p/b Colavita in second place and there are an additional 29 points to the third placed team UnitedHealthcare p/b Maxxis.
"The fact that there are three teams that are separated by 69 points would tell you that there should be some fireworks and those three teams will leave it all out on the course," Miller predicted. "I would think that it will make for some extremely exciting racing."
Other squads invited to participate alongside BMC Racing and the top three NRC teams include Bissell, Team Type 1, Trek-Livestrong, Holowesko Partners, Kelly Benefit Strategies, Kenda-Geargrinder, Adageo Energy and Bahati Foundation. There are also seven amateur teams competing.
Don't forget to pack your climbing legs
The Tour of Utah is branded as America's toughest stage race because it passes the Rocky Mountain's Wasatch Range surrounding Salt Lake City and challenges the peloton to 480km and more than 30,000 feet of high altitude climbing over a period of six days.
"The prologue and time trial are not terribly difficult, just short and pack a punch," explained Miller. "The road stages are what set it apart, I think.
"If you look at stage two it is mountainous and stage three is tough, they are both mountain road stages. Stage five is a monster stage and I have had a number of professional cyclists that have ridden in the Tour de France tell me that it is as difficult as any stages they have done in the Alps."
Each rider will line up on August 17 at the starting ramp of the event's opener, the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau's 4.48km prologue, located at the Utah State Capitol.
The following day the race will head into the mountains at the University of Utah Health Care's Ogden to Salt Lake City 136.3km road race. The peloton will pass the Ogden Canyon and be challenged over two difficult climbs before returning to Salt Lake City.
Stage two will take the riders on a jaunt over some of the toughest roads in Utah at the XANGO Thanksgiving Point to Mt. Nebo road race. The peloton will finish the 125.6km with a lung-busting 32km mountaintop finish.
The time trialists will have their day to shine at the stage three Miller Motorsport Park presented by Teamgive time trial. At 14.7km it's a race that could reshuffle the overall classification before the final two stages.
The penultimate stage is a day for the 'sprinters' with a brand new course at the Park City presented by Heiden Davidson Orthopedics criterium. Criteriums are traditionally made for the savvy and speedy sprinters but this particular course might be better suited to the climbers with a hilly 1.6 kilometre circuit held in the historical downtown of Park City. The men will race for a total of 90 minutes.
"The course wasn't specifically designed to not serve sprinters but the nature of the course won't favour a sprinter," said Miller. "You will have to be a very good all rounder. It will also depend on the pace the group rides the criterium. It's a tough crit course for sure."
The overall GC winner will emerge on the final day, the 'queen' stage - the Park City to Snowbird presented by Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort road race. It's the longest and possibly the most challenging parcours of the event, with 164km of mountainous terrain that ends with a lengthy ascent to the top of Snowbird Ski Resort.