Remember a couple weeks ago when I was complaining about the lack of climbing in the Tour de France? OK, it was a bit more nuanced than that, but maybe all I really needed was the Tour of Utah?
Well, ready or not, here it comes.
The Larry Miller Tour of Utah has earned its reputation as perhaps the toughest stage race the country hosts right now, with only the Tour of Colorado for competition. It's seven days of flat stretches punctuated by long, grinding climbs... on the easy days. On the tougher stages there is very little but climbing, or certainly nothing that matters besides going uphill. And an urban crit. Because.
Good question! Because this is the US, everything is new, except the last two days, which have become something of a signature staple for the race. Last year the race began in the southwest corner of the state, home to more coyotes than people (and it's not close), and making for something of a real tour of Utah. This year it's more like a typical ToU, run almost entirely in the northeastern part of the state and ducking in and out of the Wasatch Mountains at will. In essence the race has reverted back to a more familiar format, and should expect familiar results: building the tension over difficult climbs before coming to a head at Snowbird, or maybe Park City. What it lacks in imagination, it atones for with ideal journalistic accommodation. Larry Miller didn't get rich by accident.
In the big picture, getting a sense of who to watch after the Tour de France is always good sport. Actually, Michael Schar of BMC is apparently the only rider at the ToU who rode the 2015 Tour de France, so really you're looking at "best of the guys who couldn't get a Tour start," which implies lots of things. Like, their teams are domestic American outfits, or non-French continental squads, who don't ride the Tour at all. Or the rider is on a World Tour team which utilized him for other business, or he didn't have the fitness. That was the case with two of the headliners here, Taylor Phinney and Peter Stetina of BMC, both coming off bad injuries. Other notables, like Joe Dombrowski of Cannondale, are still working their way up the rankings before taking on Le Grand Boucle.
When's the Race Gonna Be Made?
Hm, I'm going to say not on stages 1-3 or the SLC crit on stage 5. After that it's anyone's guess, with the Queen Stage on Saturday (Stage 6) as the usual suspect. But it could happen as early as Thursday's route to Heber Valley, just south (and looping east) of Park City. There's a cool 8100 feet of climbing (2500 meters) and if Daniels Summit is still 60km from the line, it's a long descent so that even if the race isn't totally won, it should see a drastically reduced field of contenders.
Stage 6 is probably where it happens, however, if not sooner.
Total beast, and an uphill finish. Nearly 13,000 feet of vertical (~4000 meters), with a double-punch of Guardsman's Pass and Snowbird/Little Cottonwood Canyon to finish matters off. Gaps among the top ten will exceed a minute, as they do every year, and maybe multiple minutes, as the GC finally spreads itself out.
Here's the Climbybike profile of Guardsman's Pass:
Apparently the last 2km are on a "cobble-like surface." What? Are you thinking what I'm thinking?
Of course. But you'd be wrong.
Oh well. Just a Finistere style climb under the hot August sun, with no shade unless you can fit in a gopher hole. Or ride behind Michael Schar.
Anyway, the final battle takes place on the Snowbird ascent, which hits 18% early on and averages over 8% for the whole thing. I can safely recommend watching Saturday.
Who to Watch For
Well things just got rather interesting, didn't they? Out is Tom Danielson of Cannondale, the defending winner, who has tested positive (preliminarily) for testosterone. Tommy D protests his innocence, so we'll see about all that, but it does throw the race wide open. Danielson is an expert climber, and was mostly tested a year ago by Cadel Evans, who's comfortably retired. Dombrowski takes over as Garmindale's mountain goat, but he'll have company.
Chris Horner, despite being older than the surface of Guardsman's Pass, is back for another challenge after taking second in 2014. He has faced some recognizable competition at the Tour of the Gila and fared OK, and besides I am done betting on Horner being too old to do something. We'll see. All the guys who beat him in the US nats are here though: Matt Busche, Dombrowski, Kiel Reijnen, and Alex Howes. Brent Bookwalter is coming off a respectable fourth place in the Tour of Austria. Janez Brajkovic is a typical protagonist in these American events. Stefano Pirazzi has as strong a climbers' profile as anyone else I haven't named yet.
My Pick to Win
Hm... it's very very tempting to say Dombrowski, but I would guess that having the Vuelta start -- his first grand tour -- later this month may mean he has to pace himself, form-wise. Nobody else stands out... which is exactly the conditions under which Chris Horner excels. So I will pick the old guy to rule again.