Since the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies bought the Tour of Utah in 2007, the owners have worked hard to push the race into the upper echelon of US racing. So when the number of WorldTour teams dropped to just one last year after reaching a high of six in 2013 and 2014, organisers of the seven-day 2.HC race took action.
The race applied for and received new dates for 2018, moving the start to August 6 to give itself a little more distance from the Tour de France. Then the organisers put in a concerted effort to recruit the WorldTour talent.
BMC Racing has competed in every Tour of Utah since 2008 and was a good bet to return, but the race also convinced US-registered squads Trek-Segafredo and EF Education First-Drapac to return, the latter having won the race previously as Garmin in 2013 and 2014 with Tom Danielson, and in 2015 with Joe Dombrowski.
The race also attracted Dutch team LottoNL-Jumbo and Australia team Mitchelton-Scott to make five WorldTour teams in a line-up of 17, which also includes six Pro Continental teams and six Continental outfits.
The onslaught of WorldTour teams might not be welcome news for defending champion Rob Britton, but the gritty Canadian and his Rally Cycling Pro Conti squad have never been intimidated by the Division 1 teams in the past and will be in Utah determined to back up last year's result.
BMC Racing's Tejay van Garderen returns to the race for the first time since 2011 and is an obvious favourite for the overall. He is just coming off the Tour de France and could either be in recovery mode or still carrying some post-Tour form.
Former winner Joe Dombrowski, who won here in 2015, will be on the start line with EF Education First-Drapac. The American has had a quiet spring and put in two weeks of training at altitude in Park City to prepare for the race. Mike Woods, winner of a stage here in 2015 and seventh overall at the 2017 Vuelta a España, is also back in Utah on the US team's roster.
Americans Sepp Kuss and Neilson Powless will return to the race with LottoNL-Jumbo. Both riders have performed well in Utah with their previous Continental teams and should be in the mix on the climbs. Peter Stetina will lead the Trek-Segafredo charge, while Israel Cycling Academy is featuring veterans Ben Hermans and Ruben Plaza,
Other riders to watch for stage wins and a potential GC challenges are Holowesko-Citadel's TJ Eisenhart, UnitedHealthcare's Gavin Mannion, Serghei Tvetcov and Travis McCabe, and Hagens Berman Axeon's Sean Bennett, Jonny Brown and Jasper Philipsen.
The 2018 Tour of Utah returns to the beautiful red rock geology of southern Utah with a 5.3km prologue time trial in St. George, a town of 80,000 people that sits on the edge of the Mojave desert and adjacent to Zion National Park.
The out-and-back course heads west on Ed Hills Parkway with a gentle 2km climb that gains about 60 metres of elevation. Riders will then hit a short descent to the turnaround, then climb back up to a straight, fast downhill run to the finish. Gaps will be small, but the route will provide an early test for riders' legs, although with St. George at just 870 metres elevation, they'll have to wait to test themselves at altitude.
Stage 1 begins in Cedar City and ends back in the Southern Utah University college town after 162.5km and climbing the highest elevation of the race. The 24km category 1 climb through Parowan Canyon to Brian Head tops out at 3,231 metres and hits pitches of 15 per cent. Fortunately for the non-climbers, it comes nearly 100km from the finish and will allow them plenty of time to claw their way back to the head of affairs. The race took on a similar stage in 2014, albeit 20km shorter, with Moreno Hofland taking the bunch-sprint win after three short finishing circuits in Cedar City.
The race travels north to Payson City for stage 2 and another route that starts and finishes in the same host town. This day's main obstacle is the formidable Mt. Nebo, which has featured in the race five times. The climb tops out 40km from the finish, but the highly technical descent back into Payson makes it tough for riders to chase back on. Lachlan Morton, riding for Garmin and then Jelly Belly, won the Mt. Nebo stage in both 2013 and 2016. You can expect a finish with a solo rider or small group, and for the GC pecking order to start taking shape.
Stage 3 from Antelope Island to Layton is unlikely to affect the general classification, but it should be a good day for any adventurous opportunists to take their shot. The punchy climb up Bountiful Bench, which some riders will remember from past stages that finished in Bountiful, could provide a perfect launching pad for a late breakaway. The sharp climb comes more than 70km from the finish and is followed by a hilly parcours that includes another pass through Hill Air Force Base. Several finishing circuits in Layton could make for an exciting final game of cat-and-mouse between the breakaway and the bunch.
Organisers have tweaked the downtown Salt Lake City circuit slightly for this year's stage 4, which features a short-but-sweet 110km of racing around the state capitol and through several residential neighbourhoods. A new finish on Main Street in downtown Salt Lake will show off the city, while including several of the hills up to the capital where Woods won in 2016 should sap plenty of snap out of the pure sprinters' legs. Look for an explosive, classics-like puncheur to excel on this course and it's saw-tooth profile.
The traditional queen stage on the penultimate day is back for 2018, as the race once again takes on Guardsman Pass outside of Park City and the climb up Little Cottonwood Canyon to the finish at Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort. A new start at Canyon Village in Park City sends the peloton into the rolling terrain of Bucks County before a return to Park City and the challenge of Guardsman Pass. A 24km descent that drops 1,525 metres leads to the bottom of Little Cottonwood and the final 12km climb.
Although the Queen stage is plenty daunting on its own, the winner there as often as not isn't the overall winner at the end of the race. The final Park City stage is another brute of a day that has determined the overall winner multiple times. The race didn't include the stage last year because of scheduling conflicts, but it's back again.
At 123km, the stage is not nearly the longest of the week, but its main obstacle, the 12km climb up Empire Pass, tops out less than 10km - and one white-knuckle descent - from the finish in downtown Park City. A smaller category 3 climb earlier in the day is a good warm-up for the legs, but the hors category Empire Pass climb is in a league of its own as it climbs up and through massive Aspen Groves.
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Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake before studying English and journalism at the University of Oregon. He 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.
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