Last year’s Belgian runner-up wins queen stage ahead of Piccoli and Eg, takes over race lead
After slotting second overall at the Tour of Utah in 2018, Belgian Ben Hermans took a big step toward ascending that final podium place, winning the queen stage of this year’s race on Wednesday.
Hermans (Israel Cycling Academy) was the last man standing on stage 2’s brutal finishing climb up Powder Mountain, an 8.6-mile hors categorie ascent that averaged 9 percent, had maximum pitches of 15 percent, and topped out at a skyscraping 8,900 feet. All told there was 7,310 feet of climbing in the 84.4-mile leg tester that started just after noon in Brigham City.
At the finish, Hermans crossed the line in 3:37:44, 22 seconds ahead of James Piccoli (Elevate-KHS), with Trek-Segafedo’s Niklas Eg coming home third, at 0:35. Americans Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo) and Joe Dombrowski (EF Education First) completed the top 5, at 0:58 and 1:26 respectively. There were time bonuses of 10, 6, and 2 for the top 3, meaning the updated GC includes the same riders in the same order, with time gaps of 0:26, 0:52, 1:10, and 1:33.
The 33-year-old Hermans is a former WorldTour rider who’s ridden in six grand tours and spent four years each with Radio Shack and then BMC before hooking on with the Israel team two years ago.
“I knew I had to be in really good shape on this climb because you can make a lot of time but also lose a lot of time,” said Hermans. “I hoped for the best legs and I had a really good feeling on the climb so I’m happy to take the win.”
Following a fairly predictable start that saw a 6-man breakaway stay away for much of the day, the real racing began about 3 miles up the final climb. Already the 100-plus-rider field had been whittled down to about 20. That initial selection included the top 5 on the stage, plus then-race-leader Lawson Craddock (EF Education First), his teammate Lachlan Morton, Keegan Swirbul (Worthy), and Rally-UHC comrades Kyle Murphy and Rob Britton, himself a former Tour of Utah race winner.
A mile later, with the sun beating down, Stetina was the first to move, pushing off the front with Dombrowski leading the chase behind. That acceleration quickly unhitched an already fading Craddock, who was never really a threat to keep the jersey. The Texan ended up 12th at 3:10 and is now ninth overall, at 2:56.
Back at the front, Stetina continued to push the pace, apparently recovered from his effort at the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race last Saturday, where he finished fourth. Hermans and Piccoli now led the chase at 20 seconds, with Eg and Dombrowski riding together another five seconds back. But it was not to be for the EF team leader, who popped off the young Dane’s wheel, eventually settling for fifth on what had to be considered a disappointing day for the U.S.-based pink-clad squad.
At the 3-mile-to-go mark, Hermans and Piccoli latched onto a fading Stetina’s back wheel, with Piccoli immediately going to the front while shooting a menacing glare at the TV moto. It was perhaps a message of “I’m still here” following Tuesday’s incident when the Elevate rider was penalized 20 seconds for drafting off his team car following an untimely puncture with about 7.5 miles left in the stage. Whatever the case, Piccoli clearly had good legs, as he was able to quickly saw off Stetina, leaving just Hermans to contend with.
But the Belgian got the better of that final showdown, twisting the throttle with about 2.3 miles to go and dropping Piccoli. Behind that duo, Eg caught and passed his Trek teammate Stetina. And that’s how it stayed all the way to the finish, with Hermans cranking out a rapid tempo on his rim brake-equipped De Rosa bike, then crossing the finish alone at the top of the tour’s hardest climb.
“I took my time until 4km to go,” explained Hermans of the stage’s end game. “It was a little early to attack, but I took my chance and got 20 seconds pretty quickly. From there, I knew the chance was big that I could win the stage, but it was a hard fight to the finish. The last 3km was brutal.”
The question now is whether Hermans and his team can stand up to the rigors of defending his lead with four more days of tough racing to go.
“You have the legs or you don’t. You can handle the altitude of you can’t. You can either handle the heat or you cannot,” he said. “I’m pretty good in the altitude and in the heat so I think that’s why I really like to race in Utah… My form was good last year, it’s good this year. I’m leading this race now and I’ll try to keep the jersey.”
How it unfolded
As if often the case, the beginning of stage 2 at the Tour of Utah was fast and furious affair, as rider after rider tried to find their way into the inevitable breakaway. But nothing stuck early on, leading to a near full field sprint at the first sprint point in Brigham City. There it was Marco Canola (Nippo-Vini Fantini-Faizane) getting the better of Travis McCabe (Worthy), who despite being considered the race’s top fastman, has done little in the first three days of racing.
Finally, with an hour of racing in the book, a break established with Mika Heming (Dauner Akkon) and Ignacia Prado (Canel’s Specialized) getting away. They were soon joined by Chris Heider (Dauner Akkon), Austin Stephens (303 Project), Travis Samuel (DC Bank), and Quinten Kirby (Wildlife Generation). Heider was best placed on GC, at 5:43, which meant the field was more than content to let the six riders go away. Their gap would top out around 3.5 minutes, as the race rolled toward its date with Powder Mountain.
Prado, who along with Samuel, was off the front for the second day in a row, was the star of the breakaway. The reigning Mexican nation road race champion took top points at the ensuing two sprint lines, and atop the cat. 2 North Ogden Divide climb. But perhaps Prado was a little too ambitious, as he ended up missing the time cut by 50 seconds, earning disqualification from the race.
With 10 miles to go, and EF Education First upping the pace at the front of the field, the break started to unravel. Kirby was already gone. Then Stephens, Heider and Prado fell back, leaving Samuel and Heming to duke it out for the most aggressive rider prize, which often goes to whoever is the last breakaway survivor. The two riders fought to an entertaining stalemate, finally being absorbed with 9 miles to go.
That set the stage for Hermans and company to come to the front to fight for the day’s real prizes.
Next up at the Tour of Utah is stage 3’s 85.9-mile ride from Antelope State Park to North Salt Lake. After crossing the 7-mile causeway, the race will wind through the communities of West Point, Layton, Kaysville, Fruit Heights and Farmington. Most of the 5,895 feet of climbing comes when the route skirts the Wasatch Mountains south of Layton, with three Category 3 climbs in the final 29 miles
Following a punchy KoM up the Bountiful Bench, the route follows a new southbound stretch of Bountiful Boulevard for finishing circuits in first-time host city North Salt Lake. Riders will get a view across the valley of the Great Salt Lake, then make a right turn on Indian Springs Road for 3.75 laps of a 6-mile circuit. Two of those laps will award KoM points before the stage winner is decided in front of Eaglewood Golf Course. On paper it looks like a great day for a breakaway to survive.