After two stages, the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah general classification is still exceedingly tight, with 22 riders less than a minute off the time of race leader Sepp Kuss (Rally Cycling), who is currently tied on time with stage 2 winner Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing) and Elevate-KHS rider James Piccoli.
That will likely change on Wednesday when the peloton tackles the stage 3 time trial in Big Cottonwood Canyon. The course is only 9km long, but it starts at about 2,225 metres above sea level and finishes at 2,625 metres.
"It's not really tactical or it's not about pacing your effort in different parts," Bookwalter said during the winner's press conference after stage 2. "You could probably stick guys on a computer trainer and do a VO2 Max test and find out the winner [Wednesday] if you do it at altitude. It's just pure physical and pure suffering."
Bookwalter said he expects significant separation in the GC after Wednesday's stage.
"It could be the most decisive day of the race, but it's a new stage so it's hard to know," the BMC leader said. "Traditionally you see pretty big time gaps at Snowbird, too. I think last time I was here two years ago, [Cannondale-Drapac's] Joe Dombrowski put a minute into second place. So it's all open."
Kuss agreed that the time trial will likely be decisive for the overall battle, although riders will have to tackle the Queen stage to Snowbird on Saturday as well.
"It's pretty fast for an uphill TT," Kuss said. "But I think the altitude will definitely play a role because it starts up pretty high on Big Cottonwood, so I think it will test a lot of different abilities that a normal uphill might not, or a flat TT especially."
Rules for the time trial require riders to use standard road bikes with standard road handlebars and wheels. Time trial bikes and handlebar extensions are not allowed, so it will be a pure hill climb. Kuss usually favours punchier, more explosive climbs, but the former mountain biker from Colorado is hoping that growing up at altitude will work to his advantage.
"Riding the time trial course last week, it wouldn't be my ideal climb, but the altitude I really like," he said. "Growing up racing mountain bikes in Colorado as a kid, all of our races started at 8,000 or 9,000 feet. It's kind of a weird thing that when you get you that high you get almost a second wind at least. That's kind of how I feel as an altitude native, I guess you could say. People handle the altitude differently, so we'll see."
Piccoli, who has ridden the climb numerous times while training with his team in Park City over the past month, says the time trial will simply be an all-out effort. Bookwalter estimated a time of around 20 minutes, while Piccoli said it would be less.
"There's really no hiding," Piccoli said. "It's just whoever has the legs. It's really high up, so you have to think about pacing, because it's going to end at like 2,800 metres or something. It's super, super high. It's the highest stage of the Tour this year, so it's important to be acclimated and used to the altitude. I think we'll be OK tomorrow."
Behind Piccoli, a slew of strong climbers and time trialists are waiting in the wings - just two seconds back - to move up the leader board, including Francisco Mancebo (Hangar 15), Kyle Murphy (Cylance), Robin Carpenter (Holowesko-Citadel), Rob Britton (Rally Cycling), Neilson Powless (Axeon Hagens Berman), Jonny Clark (UnitedHealthcare), Gavin Mannion (UnitedHealthcare), Kilian Frankiny (BMC) and Silvan Diller (BMC).
Of all the riders currently in the top 10, Bookwalter probably has the most experience with the climb, but he only rode one recon of the route while training in Utah over the past weeks.
"I've been up Big Cottonwood a lot of times over my career," he said. "I think it's my eighth time doing this race, so I've been up it a lot, and I've never really been comfortable going up it. We were here last week again, and I rode it once and sort of said that was enough, because I didn't want to overthink it or let it get in my head too much."