KOM battle hots up at Tour of Utah

In all his years of racing, Bissell Pro Cycling's Ben Jacques-Maynes has never taken home the King of the Mountains jersey in a major stage race, but the 34-year-old from Corralitos, Calif., has his sights set on the Ski Utah climber's jersey at the 2012 Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, which ends Sunday in Park City.

Jacques-Maynes took the jersey on the opening day and held it until stage 3, when US Pro Road Race champion Timmy Duggan infiltrated a daylong breakaway and took it away from him. But Jacques-Maynes struck back during Saturday's penultimate stage, getting into another breakaway and earning the jersey back with a six-point lead over Duggan.

“At Bissell we're pretty opportunistic,” he said. “We try to ride the breakaways, go for stage wins and wear the jerseys. So it eventuated that coming into today I was a point out, and it was a viable option to go get it.”

And get it he did. Jacques-Maynes lit out for the first KOM of the day on the category 4 Jordanelle climb that came just 19 km into the stage, taking maximum points in front of Colombian Javier Gomez Pineda (EPM-UNE) and Liquigas-Cannondale's Italian Valerio Agnoli. The four-point grab put him ahead of Duggan, but the US national champion sprang up to try and take back the jersey over the category 1 ascent of Alpine Loop and the category 2 Suncrest climb.

With a breakaway of five riders up the road, the most points either Duggan or Jacques-Maynes could score at the top of Alpine Loop was four for sixth or two four seventh. Despite the slim pickings at the Summit near Sundance resort, the pair fought hard for the remaining scraps.

“Duggan went hard over the top of Alpine Loop,” Jacques-Maynes said. “And I had to dig deep to hold his wheel on that, but I got the points up there, too.”

Three more riders joined Duggan and Jaques-Maynes over the top of Alpine, and the newly formed chase group set out after the five leaders, catching them in the valley before the Suncrest climb and setting up another showdown for KOM points. Jacques-Maynes was relentless and pipped Duggan again, this time racking up eight points to Duggan's seven and building a six-point lead for the jersey. Their breakaway was eventually caught on the slopes of the final climb, so the GC contenders gobbled up all the KOM points at the finish and guaranteed Jacques-Maynes would pull the jersey back on at the end of the stage.

Now he has to defend it over what most of the riders say is the toughest stage of a race that bills itself as America's toughest stage race. Jacques-Maynes said he will be focusing on adding points during the day's category 2 climb up Wolf Creek Ranch before the GC contenders come out for the out-of-category climb of Empire Pass.

“I have to be pretty realistic,” Jacques-Maynes said at the stage 5 post-race press conference he attended with stage winner Johann Tschopp (BMC) and Bontager-Livestrong climbing specialist Joe Dombrowski, who placed third on the day. “I'm worth twice this guy [motioning toward the much thinner Dombrowski]. So there's no way I'm going over the top of Empire Pass with the top climbers. I've got to go out and get the points on the earlier KOMs just like today. So I'll try for that, and if [Duggan] is worried about GC, great for me, otherwise I might have a battle on my hands.”

Jacques-Maynes will also have the help of his eight-rider Bissell squad, which is no longer realistically in contention for the overall battle. Team director Omer Kem said Bissell will be looking to help Jacques-Maynes clinch his win on the first climb of the day.

“It's in our best interest to look at controlling for that first KOM and put Ben in the best position to go for it, because if he can take points there, and Duggan's not there, it effectively clinches it,” Kem said. “There's the big climb before the descent into Park City, but that's going to be taken by a GC rider. Duggan probably has a shot at it, but if we can take points at that first KOM, I think we can clinch it for [Jacques-Maynes].”

If he can hold on, Jacques-Maynes will join previous Tour of Utah KOM overall winners such as Levi Leipheimer, a nice reward for a hard week of racing. But he was typically reserved in his characterization of the possible accomplishment.

“It's a special feeling to be climbing OK,” he said. “But the hills that I've won on are actually not the ripping steep stuff. It kind of levels out at the top of them, so I get to sprint against climbers, which is great.”

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Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.