Rob Britton's ride to the final yellow jersey at last year's Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah was the pinnacle of his cycling career to date, taking out the 2.HC race ahead of UnitedHealthcare's Gavin Mannion and Serghei Tvetcov, who was riding for Jelly Belly-Maxxis at the time but moved to UnitedHealthcare this year.
The Rally Cycling leader's title defence in 2018 has an added challenge with four more WorldTour teams on the start list. Last year, Britton and the Utah peloton competed against just one WorldTour team in BMC Racing – the lowest number of WorldTour teams in the UCI race's history.
For 2018, EF Education First-Drapac, Trek-Segafredo, Mitchelton-Scott and LottoNL-Jumbo have joined the fray. Britton will have to face down 2015 overall winner Joe Dombroswki and his EF Education First-Drapac teammate Mike Woods, who was seventh overall at the Vuelta last year.
Also on hand in Utah this year are BMC Racing's Tejay van Garderen and Brent Bookwalter, who will share leadership duties, and LottoNL-Jumbo's Sepp Kuss and Neilson Powless, who have always performed well here. Mitchelton-Scott features Jack Haig and Lucas Hamilton, while Trek-Segafredo brought Peter Stetina for the GC. Israel Cycling Academy, a Pro Continental team, has Grand Tour veterans Ruben Plaza and Ben Hermans.
"The talent here is much deeper," Britton told Cyclingnews on Saturday evening at the teams presentation.
"I think it will definitely legitimise any results anybody gets with five WorldTour teams now, and they've brought quality rosters, too," Britton said. "It's really exciting. I'm really excited to toe the line with these guys and see what goes down."
In 2017, Britton took the jersey during the stage 3 individual time trial up Big Cottonwood Canyon – a completely uphill test that gained more than 400 metres of elevation in just nine kilometres. He held the overall lead from there, fighting off all challengers on the Queen stage to Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort and the final Salt Lake City circuit race.
This year's only time trial comes on the opening day in St. George with a 5.3km individual test that will be raced Eddy Merckx style, meaning no time trial bikes or disc wheels.
"Road bikes are probably better for me than TT bikes, maybe," Britton said. "It makes it even across the board. It's hard to get my tall frame into an aero position on a TT bike anyway, so a road bike is not so bad. It works in my favour, except it's about 15km too short, and I'd like about 3,000 feet less elevation.
"It was basically a stage that played to my absolute strengths last year," he said, "but you can't be so lucky every year. But that's OK. It will be good."
Britton last raced at the Canadian national championships in June. Since then he's been in Colorado training at attitude in Nederland with several teammates. He said earlier that he feels like he's in the same condition he was in last year coming into the race.
"I always kind of feel the same right before bike races: a little bit nervous and, like, not super-confident, but it usually bodes well," he said. "I feel good. I've done everything right so far, so, yeah, I feel like I'm in a good spot."
Britton is also confident in the team Rally brought to support him.
"I think we're on par, but maybe a little bit deeper in the climbing pool," Britton said. "Last year we had Sepp Kuss, who was amazing, and this year we have two guys in Kyle Murphy and Nigel Ellsay who I think were right up there for the most part in the race last year. They've been up in Ned with me training the whole time, and they're riding fantastically.
"For general strength, we have Danny Pate, Evan Huffman and Emerson Oronte, and with Ty Magner for the sprints. He's really good right now. I think the team is solid."
Now, with the preparation complete and the team in place, it's up to Britton to perform throughout the week, and especially on the race's daunting climbs. Britton, however, said he's not feeling any extra pressure going into his title defence.
"No. No, I never really get those kind of nerves," he said. "When I do the preparation it's not something I really think about. I just try to focus on the task at hand and what we're doing day-to-day – not what's to come."
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