As expected, Saturday's queen stage at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah was a rousing battle for overall supremacy, with race leader Rob Britton and his Rally Cycling team fighting off multiple attacks throughout the day, including a dangerous late move from Brent Bookwalter (BMC) and TJ Eisenhart (Holowesko-Citadel).
Bookwalter started the 100km stage in fifth pace overall, just 44 seconds behind Britton. Eisenhart went into the day sixth overall, 58 seconds back. In between them stood Neilson Powless (Axeon Hagens Berman) at 38 seconds, Serghei Tvetcov (Jelly Belly-Maxxis) at 28 seconds and Gavin Mannion (UnitedHealthcare) in second, 26 seconds down.
The short stage featured the category 1 climb of American Fork Canyon at 33km and the Hors category final climb to Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort. In the beginning, things played out according to expectations. A large breakaway of 18 riders formed off the front in the opening kilometres, and with no threats to the general classification in the move, Rally allowed the escapees to ride away.
"We didn't really have a set plan, but you saw from the beginning that Rally was really happy just to keep their team together and let as many guys go as needed," Bookwalter told Cyclingnews. "That was smart. Keeping your team together is the best thing you can do. Our best chance to split them up was to do a really hard pace on the climb."
BMC accomplished that mission, setting a pace on American Fork that caught many off-guard and shed the non-climbing chaff from the bunch.
"It was a bit different on the first climb than I thought it would be," Mannion told Cyclingnews. "BMC just kind of ripped it from the field. So it was quite a bit harder there than I expected."
Britton had just Sepp Kuss with him by the time main bunch reached the top of the climb, and Bookwalter immediately went on the attack.
"Toward the top we started sending Joey [Rosskopf] and Kilian [Frankiny] to put some pressure, and I think by then [Rally was] down to two guys," Bookwalter said. "In a perfect world we were talking about leapfrogging up, but when we hit the downhill Joey came up and said, 'You have to go. We have to put him under pressure. He's not descending good.' We could see in the first corner that Britton was a little cautious, so I let it rip, then got up to Kilian."
Eisenhart made the leap to the remnants of the original break as well, and the two GC riders set off across the flatter sections of the course toward the Snowbird climb. Eisenhart had Ty Magner for help, and Bookwalter had Frankiny. Axeon's Jonny Brown was also along for the ride.
Magner and Frankiny burned all their matches getting their leaders to the climb, where they had just 15 seconds on the yellow jersey group.
"We miscalculated a little bit, both TJ and I using our teammates before the climb," Bookwalter said. "I think we forgot to tell our teammates that the final approach was really steep. Me and TJ ended up alone the last 5k just riding into the climb, so we lost an important 30 seconds there."
It rarely pays off to panic
Rather than being concerned about his rivals, however, Britton was happy to see them on the attack, using energy before the final ascent.
"It rarely pays off to panic," Britton said. "Usually keeping a cool head prevails. I had 100 per cent confidence in these guys. In our radio I could here that Evan [Huffman] was catching back on. We had Danny [Pate] and Colin [Joyce], and once we got to the bottom and it kind of straightened out a bit, Danny and Colin were just behind us.
"I knew that Brent and TJ were going to be going full gas to try and get across, and it was actually kind of a good situation for us with our guys once they catch back up, and we got some help from Caja Rural, which was fantastic because it allowed us to save our bullets with two of the strongest guys in the race riding full gas just to get a 15-second lead at the base of the climb.
"It actually worked out in our favour," Britton continued. "I couldn't have asked for a better situation. Those two guys are huge threats, and their aggression kind of worked against them a bit today."
When the yellow jersey group caught the leaders on the lower slopes of the climb. Bardiani-CSF massed on the front and set a pace that quickly whittled the group down to a handful of contenders.
"Bardiani was going for the stage win, which they got," Mannion said of eventual stage winner Giulio Ciccone. "They had five guys riding flat out the first 15 minutes. Then [Ciccone] attacked and he was little bit further down on GC, I think, so he had a bit of freedom there."
Bardiani-CSF’s Simone Sterbini jumped away next and also gained his freedom, eventually finishing second to complete the Bardiani-CSF one-two punch. Back in the next group, the GC quartet of Britton, Mannion, Tvetcov and Powless continued to feel each other out.
Powless rode his own pace, losing contact with the yellow jersey group and then fighting his way back before he launched his own attack with about two kilometres to go as the others engaged in a bit of cat and mouse. The 20-year-old Axeon rider opened a gap and started to ride away.
"With Gavin, Serghei and myself all together, there was a little bit of cat and mouse all the way up," Britton said. "No one made a full-hearted attack other than Neilson, and he made some big ground because he was little bit further down on GC. Gavin put in a big acceleration with about one kilometre to go, and I think Serghei came off a little bit there. Then we just missed catching [Powless].
At the finish, Powless crossed the line for third place, But Mannion and Britton were just three seconds behind. Tvetcov came in another four seconds down. Bookwalter ended up 10th, 2:06 down, and Eisenhart was 15th at 2:49.
Sunday's final showdown in Salt Lake City
In the overall going into the final stage, Britton now leads Mannion by 26 seconds and Tvetcov by 32. Powless is fourth, just three seconds behind Tvetcov, with Bookwalter fifth at 2:06, and Ciccone now sixth at 2:16.
Sunday's final stage will take place on a 10.8km circuit in along the state capitol in Salt Lake City. Riders will cover 11 laps of the hilly circuit that finishes with a punchy climb. The last time this course was used in 2013, Michael Matthews won the race ahead of Greg Van Avermaet.
Britton said his GC fight is not over, and he's prepared for another day of hard racing if he wants to claim the final yellow jersey.
"I think it will be very similar as [stage 6]," Britton said. "They're going to try and isolate me as early as possible, but in doing that – the guys are going really well – going that hard isolates almost everyone, even to a degree their own team.
"I think I should be able to lean on guys like Gavin and Serghei a little more now that the podium positions are fairly solidified. I don't know exactly what to expect, but I'm sure it will be aggressive right from the get go."