Mitchelton-Scott's Jack Haig found the climb up Mount Nebo during stage 2 of the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah on Wednesday to his liking, finishing the stage in eighth place and climbing from 15th overall to ninth.
But the 24-year-old Australian said it was a little unexpected the way the peloton tackled the climb at the US 2.HC race.
"I was a little bit surprised at what the racing's like here," Haig told Cyclingnews at his team bus after the finish. "Just at the bottom of the climb there, I was thinking, 'It's a 40-minute climb. We can start in the middle of the pack and I'll be all right.'
"But they went full-gas from the bottom and just split it to pieces straight away," he said. "It put me a bit on the back foot, but I guess it makes sense racing at altitude. The idea is to put someone in the red so that they never come back again. Luckily, I came back. I went into the red a little bit, but I came back. But it was a good day."
The rider doing the damage at the head of affairs was LottoNL-Jumbo's Sepp Kuss – the 23-year-old former mountain biker from Durango, Colorado. Kuss countered an attack from Trek-Segafredo's Peter Stetina in the opening kilometres of the climb and then set off on a long day alone on the front, eventually winning the stage ahead of teammate Neilson Powless and claiming the overall lead.
Haig crossed the line with a group of 10 riders that were 32 seconds behind the winner, and just three second behind Powless and third-placed Kyle Murphy (Rally Cycling). The Australian is now 40 seconds behind Kuss on the overall classification with four stages left, and the race's toughest days ahead. But Wednesday's first day in the big mountains forced just about all the GC contenders to come front and centre.
"I think EF Education First-Drapac definitely showed their cards that they're the strongest team here, having the three guys up there and all of them trying and attacking at the finish there," Haig said. "But I think by far the strongest rider here must be Sepp. His ride was amazing.'
Kuss' ride was so "amazing" that Haig, and probably many others in the yellow jersey group, thought the young American would fade during his 52km solo move.
"I thought he would, but he's a very talented bike rider, and I think he was born up in Colorado, in Durango, so he's used to the altitude," Haig said. "So it makes for an exciting race now. The two Jumbo guys – the young guys who are doing well – the three EF-Drapac guys, and then BMC with Tejay van Garderen and Brent Bookwalter... There are some strong teams here."
The Tour of Utah is almost always decided over the weekend. The 'queen stage' on Saturday takes on the climbs up Guardsman Pass and Little Cottonwood Canyon to Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort for a total of 3,040 metres of elevation gain. Sunday's final stage in Park City features 2,423 metres of elevation gain in just 123.4km as it ascends up and over Empire Pass. Haig is looking forward to the challenge.
"That is a really hard last stage, and I've ridden the course quite a bit," he said. "I came to Park City early to do some training and I rode the climb a little bit, so I feel I know it pretty well. To be honest, the weekend's just hard. There's no two ways about it. It's just hard."
That kind of difficulty is precisely why Haig came to Utah as he amps up his preparation for the Vuelta a España at the end of the month. Haig finished 21st overall there in 2017, and was 36th more recently at the Giro d'Italia. He's hoping to climb even further up the Vuelta's general classification, and the Tour of Utah could be a key ingredient to finding that success. In 2013, Chris Horner went straight from Utah to winning the Vuelta.
"Stetina told me this the other day. He said Chris came here and prepared well. If I could have half as good a result as him, I'd be pretty impressed, so we'll see," Haig said.
"I think it's perfect preparation. I had two weeks in Park City before the race here, so I'll have had almost three weeks at altitude, and then I'll have 10 days at home before travelling down to Malaga.
"So I'm getting some good preparation, and the atmosphere and the people here are fun," he said. "It's more relaxed than being in Europe, which is a good mental change. It's perfect, to be honest. The heat is a little uncomfortable at times, but I think it’s perfect prep for the Vuelta."
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