Since joining the ranks of the UCI races in 2010 as 2.1 event, the Tour of Utah has grown steadily in importance and prestige, culminating with its jump to 2.HC status this year. The seven-day race, which starts Sunday in Logan, will once again challenge riders with one of the toughest routes on the US calendar, setting up an expected rematch between Tom Danielson (Cannondale-Garmin), winner of the past two editions, and Chris Horner (Airgas-Safeway), runner-up the past two years.
Danielson returns to the race with Cannondale-Garmin, which are also bringing young guns Joe Dombrowski, Alex Howes and Ben King as part of the eight-man roster that will help the defending champion. Danielson won the climber's jersey earlier this year at the Volta a Catalunya and has been preparing for Utah and the USA Pro Challenge since he finished the Tour de Suisse in June.
Horner, on the other hand, returns to the 2015 race with Airgas-Safeway, a Continental team with a roster of relatively untested U23 riders. Horner himself has not performed up to expectations this year, most recently finishing 12th overall at the Cascade Cycling Classic, so his ability to go toe-to-toe with Danielson and Cannondale-Garmin remains in question.
Trek Factory Racing has just six riders on their roster, including recently crowned US champion Matthew Busche and Fränk Schleck. Busche finished second in Utah to Johan Tschopp in 2012, but since then he's slipped to fifth in 2013, when he was working for Horner on RadioShack, and 11th last year. This will be the first time in Utah for Schleck, who last raced at the Tour de Suisse in June.
BMC Racing, which claimed their only overall win in Utah with Tschopp in 2012, appear to be set up better for stage wins than for making a run at the overall. Michael Schär, who won a stage last year with a gutsy solo move, will be on hand, as will Joey Rosskopf, who finished second to Cadel Evans during the Queen stage last year while riding for Hincapie Racing.
With only three WorldTour teams in this year's race, opportunities for second- and third-division teams should increase, and riders from Pro Continental teams Bardiani-CSF, Colombia, Drapac, MTN-Qhubeka and UnitedHealthcare will be looking to capitalise. Continentals teams Axeon Cycling, Budget Forklifts, Hincapie Racing, Jamis-Hagens Berman, Jelly Belly-Maxxis, Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies and Team SmartStop will hunt for results while playing their usual roles as animators and opportunists.
A new northern route with some old favourites
The 11th edition of the race will travel to the northern edge of the state for the first time, taking off this year from Logan, a city of about 50,000 people just over an hour north of Salt Lake City. The 212km opening stage, which travels from Logan for a loop around Bear Lake before returning for several finishing circuits in town, has two KOMs that top out at just under 2,400 metres before a 60km downhill run to the finish.
The race travels west to Tremonton for the start of stage 2, a 160km run that the sprinters will certainly have marked in their race books. The stage has just one KOM, the relatively tame North Ogden Divide at just over 1,800 metres, and it comes 30km from the finish in Ogden.
Stage 3 will showcase the Great Salt Lake and a little western heritage as the route starts on Antelope Island, the largest island in the Great Salt Lake and home to a significant wildlife population, including more than 500 American Bison. The day features four KOMs but a paltry 2,000 metres of climbing before the peloton reaches Bountiful for a finish on Main Street.
Stage 4 will provide riders with a real taste of the challenge they'll face in the mountains on the final two days when they climb over Wolf Creek Pass at nearly 2,900 metres. The 204km route starts and finishes in Soldier Hollow, a former Olympic venue, and also takes riders over the category 4 climbs of Daniels Summit and Jordanelle. Afer 2,500 metres of climbing, another downhill run to the finish could make this a sprint for a reduced group.
Stage 5 returns to downtown Salt Lake City for a 90km circuit race that shows off the University of Utah and the state capitol. This year's hilly route features two new streets that reach more than 20 per cent pitch, making this a likely day for the puncheurs to go for a stage win. This one will be short but very sweet.
The traditional Queen stage on the penultimate day is back to wreak its usual havoc on the general classification. With no time trial in the race again this year, the climbers will take over on the 177km stage from Salt Lake City to Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort. The day has just three KOMs but throws nearly 4,000 metres of climbing at the peloton. The route goes up immediately, with the category 4 climb up Little Mountain reaching its peak just 17km into the race.
The category 3 KOM on Big Mountain comes 13km later, followed by the daunting category 1 climb out of Park City over Guardsman's Pass. A thrilling descent sets riders up for the day's main course, the 17km out-of-category ascent to Snowbird.
Although the GC pecking order has been set for the final day, the racing is far from over. The final 125km stage once again starts and finishes in Park City. In between the route takes riders over Wolf Creek Pass one more time, then drops them off at the base of Empire Pass, another out-of-category climb that sets the leaders up for a harrowing descent back into town.
Weather: Current forecasts call for temperatures in the mid-30s (Celsius) throughout the week, with the mercury climbing as the race makes its way south.