Tour of Utah ready to dish out punishment - Preview

Addition of Mt. Nebo increases the suffering quotient at 'America's Toughest Stage Race'

The Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah is back this year from August 1-7 to re-stake its claim of being America's Toughest Stage Race, a slogan the seven-day 2.HC race has claimed for itself.

After the 2016 Tour of California pushed its difficulty level to new heights with multiple challenging climbing days and a Queen stage finish on Gibraltar Road, the Tour of Utah has brought back the climb over Mt. Nebo, which tops out at 3,635 metres. The traditional final two stages also return, making for another back-loaded race that should come down to the final two days.

Last year's runner-up Michael Woods (Cannonadle-Drapac) will not be at the race this year as he is competing in the Olympic Games road race later this month, but he said it looks like the 2016 Tour of Utah will be even harder than it was last year, although the "toughest" moniker is still up for debate.

"I think the guys that did Tour of California this year may want to argue that," Woods told Cyclingnews from Spain, where he was preparing for Rio.

"I mean, on paper, from an altitude perspective, it is certainly the toughest terrain on the American circuit; however, what really matters most is how it is raced. Last year when I raced there, until the final two days, the race was a pretty controlled affair, which led to some relatively easy racing. It was only in the last two days where things became pretty difficult. However, I think with this year's additional climbs, it could be significantly harder."

The Contenders

The Cannondale-Drapac team has returned to defend the three consecutive overall wins of Tom Danielson (2013 and 2014) and last year's winner Joe Dombroswki. The 2015 champion will have a super domestique in Andrew Talansky, firmly placing Dombrowski at the top of the favourites list.

BMC Racing has Colombian Darwin Atapuma and 2014 Tour of Utah standout Joey Rosskopf, while Trek-Segafredo has Peter Stetina, who will benefit from the lack of a time trial in the race.

Former Giro d'Italia winner Damiano Cunego will lead Pro Continental team Nippo-Vini Fantini. UnitedHealthcare will field Matthew Busche, who was second here in 2012, for the general classification, along with recent climbing revelation Jonny Clarke. ONE Pro Cycling will debut in the race with several Tour of Utah veterans, including James Oram and Dion Smith.

Among the Continental teams, Chris Horner, winner of the 2013 Vuelta and twice runner-up in Utah, will return with Lupus Racing. Horner finished second to Tom Danielson in 2013 and 2014, and the 44-year-old was fifth last year.

Jelly Belly's Lachlan Morton has had success in Utah in the past and will lead a motivated team, while Rally Cycling comes into the race with proven GC rider Rob Britton and newcomer Adam De Vos, as well as 2015 stage winner Eric Young.

Axeon Hagens Berman brings 2015 stage winner Logan Owen and national champion Greg Daniel to the race, along with GC contenders Tao Geoghegan Hart and Tour of California revelation Nielson Powless. Holowesko-Citadel features recent Cascade Classic winner Robin Carpenter, and Canada's Silber Pro Cycling is fielding Redlands Bicycle Classic winner Matteo Dal-Cin.

Team Jamis has 2011 stage winner Janier Acevedo on their roster for the general classification, plus a talented lineup for the sprint finishes that features Lucas Sebastian Haedo.

The Route

Stage 1 – Zion Canyon Village to Cedar City, 135km

The first day of the race will be the most scenic; the peloton starts with a 20km neutral rollout through Zion National Park. Racing begins when the peloton leaves the park through the east gate heading for the first sprint of the week in Orderville. From there it's all uphill to the KOMs at Duck Creek and Bristlecone, the first, but not last, time the race reaches 3,000 metres of elevation.

Despite the climbing, a long descent to the finishing circuits in downtown Cedar City makes a sprint finish likely for stage 1.

Stage 2 – Escalante to Torrey, 159.3km

Stage 2 has a similar profile to the opening day, with the main climb, the ascent of Boulder Mountain, coming much earlier in the day at 65km, followed by a jagged profile leading to Torrey and a short finishing circuit.

Stage 3 – Richfield to Payson, 191.5km

This day will see a return to the race of Mt. Nebo, the highest peak in the Wasatch Range. The climb, which was last used in 2013 when Lachlan Morton soloed away on the climb to take the stage win in Payson, tops out at more than 3,000 metres. The climb summits 40km from the finish, but Morton managed to hold off the chase the last time the race was here. This could be the first shuffling among the GC contenders.

Stage 4 – Lehi to Kearns, 154.4km

This transitional stage has a sawtooth profile that could favour a breakaway, and with the general classifications starting to sort itself, don't be surprised to see a move stick here. If the stage does come down to a bunch sprint, it will likely be from a reduced group as the pure sprinters could have a rough day on the constantly up-and-down course.

Stage 5 – Antelope Island to Bountiful, 183.4km

A repeat of last year's stage won by Owen, this stage could also favour a motivated breakaway. Similar stage 4, however, if a group does come to the line, the short, steep climbs on the finishing circuits in Bountiful should eliminate the pure sprinters.

Stage 6 – Snowbasin Resort to Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort, 183.4km

The traditional Queen stage at the race 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.

Stage 7 – Park City to Park City, 125.5km

This is no parade stage. While not having the volume of climbing as the previous day, stage 7 ends with the climb up Empire Pass, which 2015 runner-up Woods says is the hardest climb of the race.

"In my mind, Empire Pass has to be the most difficult of the three [Guardsman, Little Cottonwood and Empire]," Woods said. "By virtue of it being the final climb of the race and it's steep gradients, it is a really tough one. In terms of the other climbs, I would put Gaurdsman above Snowbird, as it is also steeper and tops out at almost 10,000 feet. When you hit the top of Guardsman, because of the altitude, you just feel like you are crawling."

After summiting the Empire Pass, a screaming, twisting descent into Park City leads to the new finish on Upper Main Street and the crowning of the 2016 champion.

2016 Tour of Utah teams:

BMC Racing Team (USA)
Cannondale Pro Cycling Team (USA)
IAM Cycling (Switzerland)
Trek-Segafredo (USA)

Professional Continental:
Fortuneo-Vital Concept (France)
Nippo-Vini Fantini (Italy)
ONE Pro Cycling (Great Britain)
Team Novo Nordisk (USA)
UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team (USA)

Axeon Hagens Berman Cycling Team (USA)
Holowesko-Citadel Racing Team p/b Hincapie Sportswear (USA)
Team Jamis (USA)
Jelly Belly Cycling p/b Maxxis (USA)
Lupus Racing Team (USA)
Rally Cycling (USA)
Silber Pro Cycling (Canada)

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