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Tour of Utah traces success to careful spending, wise timing, and balanced competition

By Dane Cash • Updated

ROADSIDE SPECTATORS at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah have seen riders from across five different WorldTour teams roll by this week, with marquee names Tejay van Garderen (BMC) and Mike Woods (EF Education First-Drapac), among others, in attendance ahead of their Vuelta a España campaigns. Domestic star Travis McCabe (UnitedHealthcare) has lit up the sprint stages, while two Continental riders have been fighting for spots inside the top 10 overall.

The race’s blend of WorldTour, Pro Continental, and UCI Continental teams is set to extend for the foreseeable future. Race organizers confirmed this week that the Tour of Utah will return in 2019, and that the organization has no plans to stop or downgrade the race anytime soon.

Organizers have embraced the race’s spot within the U.S. domestic racing scene as the country’s second largest event, behind the Amgen Tour of California, which has UCI WorldTour status. And Utah’s organizers understand that the race’s place within the U.S. domestic racing scene has grown increasingly important in recent years.

That’s why the race has no plans to seek a higher UCI categorization in the near future.

“We do recognize we fit a very important niche in that space,” said Steven Miller, chairman of the Tour of Utah and son of the late Larry H. Miller. “If we upgrade, we realize that creates a massive void for a lot of teams that now really rely on the Tour of Utah.”

TWO YEARS AGO, the UCI announced that the Amgen Tour of California would upgrade to WorldTour status, news that roughly coincided with the official death knell of the USA Pro Challenge, last held in 2015. Then, as now, many in the sport pondered the future of the North American race scene. Where would domestic Continental teams get their chance to ride against the best?

Even in the same challenging environment that sunk the USA Pro Challenge and, last year, the Tour of Alberta, the Tour of Utah has thrived. The field is as strong in 2018 as it has ever been. At the same time, it still includes a number of domestic squads. For them, the stretch of racing between the Tour of Utah and the Colorado Classic, whose second edition gets underway in less than a week, is the most important part of the season calendar.

The diverse spread of teams in attendance in Utah is no coincidence. It is the result of a great deal of planning, and, at present, a commitment to a critical position in the North American pro racing scene.

“We want at least five or six WorldTour teams every year,” Miller said.

It’s an ambitious goal for a North American stage race, but one the Tour of Utah accomplished this season with BMC, EF, Mitchelton-Scott, LottoNL-Jumbo, and Trek-Segafredo all in attendance.

After only one top-division team made the start in 2017, the Tour of Utah made a stronger effort to court WorldTour teams in 2018, knowing the importance of the presenting a quality list of contenders.

“We went out, really, much further in advance approaching the WorldTour teams,” said managing director John Kimball.

Changes to the UCI calendar helped Utah woo WorldTour teams. The Tour de France started later than usual this year thanks to soccer’s World Cup. The Tour of Utah also started roughly one week later than it did in 2017. Last year’s opening day of racing in Utah was July 31. This year’s was August 6.

“We kind of lean on [the UCI] to tell us when it makes the most sense for the calendar,” Kimball said. “I think it really did help us move back a week. That allowed us to get more WorldTour teams able to send teams this year. We’re looking forward to next year being the same scenario.”

With the 2018 Tour de France concluding in Paris on July 29, van Garderen might not have attended had Utah gotten underway a week prior. What’s more, the event remains perfectly positioned ahead of the Vuelta. Kimball pointed to Utah’s altitude training opportunities as key selling point the race relied on to draw the world’s biggest teams this season. Sports directors at the race agree with that assessment, and have also pointed to the heat — unpleasant though it may be — as a helpful primer ahead of the season’s hottest grand tour.

Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) took the Tour of Utah prologue win, and with it the lead in the stage race. Photo: Casey B. Gibson

According to Miller, the Tour of Utah is welcoming to any WorldTour squad interested in making the trip. Figuring out which second- and third-tier outfits receive invites is a more selective process.

“The Pro Continental teams, they kind of sort themselves out based on caliber of their rosters,” Miller says. This year, that has worked out to mean that four of the five American Pro Conti teams — Rally Cycling, UnitedHealthcare, Hagens Berman Axeon, and Holowesko-Citadel — are making the start along with Israel Cycling Academy and Nippo-Vini Fantini.

“The very nature of the selection process often has the Continental teams being the third and last bucket that we select from, but we always save space for at least a handful of Continental teams because we realize that there’s value in those Continental teams based on the rider composition and the team composition,” Miller said.

In short, Continental teams are an important part of the puzzle. For this year’s edition of the event, Italian Pro Continental outfit Bardiani-CSF was slated to send a squad to Utah, bringing the total number of attending teams to 17, up one from the recent norm of 16 squads. However, Bardiani pulled out in the lead up to the race. Instead of moving forward with 16 teams as in past editions, the race extended an invite to Mobius-BridgeLane. The Australian Continental squad accepted, rounding out this year’s 17-team selection.

According to Kimball, the race leans on race production company Medalist Sports to help with the decision-making process behind which teams get invites. The ability to field a competitive roster is the key factor in making the grade, although Kimball says the race is willing to take risks on smaller teams considering how well some of them have performed in Utah in the past.

Invitations to races at any UCI level are not easy to come by for Continental squads. Invitations to 2.HC-rated events are practically invaluable. The Utah-Colorado stretch is the one chance for many domestic teams to square off against WorldTour talents on home soil. Events like the Tour de Beauce and the Tour of the Gila are critical targets for teams like 303 Project and Jelly Belly, but there is a significant difference between the Pro Continental teams at the top-tier of those races and the EFs and BMCs in Utah.

“We’ve ridden against the Pro Conti teams here the whole year and there’s been one percent extra but not 10 percent extra. Here, we’re feeling the 10 percent extra,” said 303 Project director Nicholas Greef . “It’s good for us to see where we need to grow and develop.”

For years, the Tour of California and the USA Pro Challenge also gave domestic Continental teams that opportunity. California’s upgrade to the WorldTour level denied access to the country’s UCI Continental teams. The USA Pro Challenge, meanwhile, no longer exists. That leaves Utah, and the Colorado Classic as the country’s only UCI-rated stage races for the UCI Continental squads.

AFTER BOUNCING BETWEEN the UCI calendar and national series in its early years, the Tour of Utah earned 2.1 UCI status for the 2011 edition and maintained that until 2015, when it became a 2.HC event. In that respect, it has outlasted other big races that have attempted to draw big talents from the peloton to North America, like the Tour of Alberta and the Tour of Missouri.

Careful spending has allowed the race to stay afloat on a relatively small budget. Miller told VeloNews in 2016 that the Tour of Utah’s budget came in at around one-third of the cost of a $10 million event, putting it between $3 and $4 million. He says that things have not changed much since then. Costs are shared between the Larry H. Miller Group — which runs large networks of car dealerships and movie theaters, the NBA’s Utah Jazz, and an array of other business properties — and non-title sponsors. Then there’s the Miller family itself. That safety net is important.

As Steve Miller puts it, the Miller family sees covering the gap between sponsorship revenue and race costs at the Tour of Utah as a largely “philanthropic undertaking.” Fortunately for the race, the Miller family seems comfortable with the nature of that commitment in its current state, even with modest net financial losses each year.

Travis McCabe wins stage 1 of the 2018 Tour of Utah in a field sprint in front of Southern Utah University. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

According to Miller, the race’s future is on “safe footing” as long as the Utah communities keep wanting the event to come back, and as long as the costs of the race stay manageable compared to the budget.

“We look at the race on at least a three-year horizon,” Miller said. “If something crazy happens, if the economy went to heck or who knows what, we always reserve the right to tuck our horns in, but we’re already working on ’19 and have been for three, four, five months. And we’re always planting seeds for at least a year beyond that.”

Even that level of stability is rare for North American races that dare to dream of a high UCI rating and top-tier fields. Other than the Tour of California, Utah is the longest running North American race with a UCI rating higher than 2.2.

That track record and that stability have benefits that go beyond peace-of-mind for organizers and teams. The Tour of Utah has developed a reputation as a showcase of emerging stage racing tour talent. That reputation helps keep the start list strong, and it often starts with the Continental invites. They propagate a self-sustaining effect for the race.

“One of the neat things about the Tour of Utah is that you can look at just about any WorldTour roster and you can point to someone who did a good performance at Utah, often as a Continental rider,” Miller said.

For domestic teams, who often find themselves hunting sponsors around this time of year to simply stay in existence for another season, it’s a huge boon to be able to rely on Utah, its highly competitive racing, and its exposure. Right now, the Colorado Classic stretches that boon through a very welcome second week.

Miller points out that the Tour of Utah is not shutting the door to considering a WorldTour upgrade one day. For now, however, that does not seem to be on the event’s radar. As Miller puts it, it comes down to determining “whether the juice is worth the squeeze.” At the moment, Miller and the rest of the decision makers behind the race see value in continuing the race as it is, into 2019 and presumably beyond.

It remains to be seen whether the exposure the Tour of Utah offers will translate to financial stability for hard-pressed domestic squads this season. It remains to be seen whether the riders from second- or third-tier squads that have put their abilities on display in Utah this week will ultimately climb to the WorldTour as further confirmation of the event’s status as a talent showcase.

At the very least, however, North American cycling fans can look forward to more showdowns between grand tour talents and rising domestic stars for the foreseeable future. In an ideal cycling climate, that might not be news. For now, with multiple North American teams facing uncertain futures and only one other active 2.HC race this side of the Atlantic, it is big news — and good news too.