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Preview: No clear favorite for the 2013 Tour of Utah

Chris Horner, Tom Danielson, Janier Acevedo headline a long list of overall contenders looking for an edge in Utah

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CEDAR CITY, Utah (VN) — The Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah begins on Tuesday with stage 1 from Brian Head to Cedar City. The six-day race won’t lack for spectacular scenery; nor will it be short on climbing, with some 40,000 vertical feet of elevation gain in less than a week.

But a true favorite for the overall title? That, it seems, is in short supply in the southern Utah desert.

Featuring three brand new stages in the southern end of the state, and classic alpine stages in and around Park City, this year’s race is a true tour of Utah, and will test a GC rider’s ability to stay safe in the wind, climb like the devil, and hang tough in the punishing circuit race around Salt Lake City. It has a little bit of everything, except a race against the clock, which changes the dynamic of the race considerably.

“Without a time trial, it opens it up; it’s a true road racer’s course,” said course director Todd Hageman. “I can’t really pick a favorite here. Of course there’s [Ryder] Hesjedal, [Janier] Acevedo, then [Chris} Horner.”

In its ninth year, the race has attracted its largest and most accomplished field, including 16 Olympians; 32 countries will be represented.

But who stands out from the field? The Tour of Utah sits at an interesting crossroads in the season of professional cycling: UCI ProTeams have rosters filled with riders fresh (or not so fresh) off the Tour de France. The question isn’t whether they are capable of contending in Utah, but if they have recovered from the chaos, stress, and difficulty of the 100th Tour.

Meanwhile, domestic teams see Utah as one of three grand opportunities in the U.S. — alongside the Amgen Tour of California and the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado — to compete against the world’s best and demonstrate that they deserve to race among the sport’s elite.

This crossroads creates an interesting dynamic for the overall title, but presents a difficult task when picking favorites. At Monday’s pre-press conference and in one-on-one interviews, there has been plenty of finger pointing, as in, “he’s the guy that could win.” Seemingly no one has been ready to step up to claim the status of favorite. This isn’t boxing, after all.

Certainly, both Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) and Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) must be mentioned, but are they up to the task?

“I want to use this race for good momentum, and build toward [the Tour of] Alberta,” Hesjedal said.

Hesjedal became Canada’s first grand tour winner when he rode away with the Giro d’Italia in 2012. This year, he has been sucked into a blackhole of sickness and injury; a chest infection in Italy prevented him from defending his title, and a fractured rib ruined his chances in France. The pain and stiffness of his rib injury linger; there’s no question the season has been a disappointment for the Canadian.

But with that inaugural Tour of Alberta on the horizon, Hesjedal has extra motivation to find the form that brought him the Giro title. His return to success starts in Utah. Still, he has just come from Europe, and hasn’t raced at altitudes like these since he raced in Colorado two years ago. He doesn’t consider himself a favorite, but rather looks to teammate Tom Danielson as a contender.

Based in Boulder, Colo., Danielson shines brightest at high altitudes and will be looking to race hard in front of home crowds. He can hone his form in Utah.

“I know he wants to ride well,” Hesjedal said of his teammate. “He was able to leave right after the Tour and get back to living at altitude. That’s got to be part of the equation.”

Garmin returns for a fourth year with a strong team to support Hesjedal and Danielson, including Utah native David Zabriskie, the multiple-time U.S. time trial national champion. Christian Vande Velde has recovered from two crashes at this year’s Tour de France, which caused him to withdraw after stage 7, and starts his penultimate race before retirement. Young climbing talents Peter Stetina and Lachlan Morton will only bolster the team’s prowess in the mountains.

Horner, on the other hand, hasn’t raced in five months due to a knee injury that required surgery. He has claimed that he’s been training for just three weeks. Horner is never shy about his climbing ability, but he also has his eyes set on a future target, in the Vuelta a España.

Still, without hesitation he considers himself a top-10 contender.

“If the form arrives [in Utah], I’m going to take it seriously,” Horner said. “I’m not going to give up a win here in Utah just so I can save form for Spain. But realistically I’ve only had three good weeks of training, but the knee is holding up, the power is good, so … the biggest thing for me is we come here at altitude. Altitude has never really treated me good in the past. It’s not hard for me to say I’m going to go top 10; that’s pretty reliable. Can I hang with everyone here? My power meter says I’m on good form, so I’m not worried I’m going to get dropped or something like that. I think I’ll be battling for the win sometime during the week.”

Who did Horner point at as the favorite?

“The Garmin boys, because there’s so many of them, and if they did the right recovery after the Tour [de France] they could come in here with fabulous form,” he said. “Maybe even better than what they had at the Tour. And Garmin came with the best GC team you can have.”

No stranger to the Tour of Utah, Francisco Mancebo (5-hour Energy-Kenda) won the race with Rock Racing in 2009 and finished second, with a composite team backing him, a year later. When the road goes up, he can never be discounted. And the road will definitely be going up in Utah.

“I believe this year this race is the hardest in America,” Mancebo said. “There’s a lot of climbing and it’s going to be very hard. I feel confident and I feel good that the race will suit me.”

To no one’s surprise, when asked directly, he also deflected attention away from himself as a favorite, literally pointing at the man sitting next to him at the press conference.

“Janier [Acevedo] is the favorite,” he said. “He is very good in the mountains all year long. And he’s the favorite. Of course, there are the Bontrager kids, who have been riding very strong, and Horner.”

After his performance in May’s Amgen Tour of California, Colombian climber Acevedo is ready to shine in Utah on his favorite terrain.

“I’ve been training good for the whole year,” Acevedo said. “I’ve had goals all year and it’s been a great year for me. I’m confident this is going to be another great race for me. But I will see how the legs are. One of the good things in cycling is that the road will put you in the place where you belong. I believe I have good legs but I will have to see how the race goes.”

Acevedo is a former stage winner, having taken the circuit race in Salt Lake City in 2011. Another climbing talent, Matt Cooke signed with the Jamis team in late June and should complement Acevedo in the mountains.

“There are a number of riders that can be good at this race. Because it’s such a hard race it is wide open for many guys to compete against,” Acevedo said.

Among those other riders are talents like Philip Deignan (UnitedHealthcare), who was ninth overall at the 2009 Vuelta a España, ninth overall at this year’s Tour of California, and won the 2013 Tour of the Gila. Deignan’s UnitedHealthcare team makes its sixth appearance in Utah, and will field a very strong, including Utah native Jeff Louder, overall winner in 2008, and Lucas Euser, who was eighth overall in the 2012 Tour of Utah.

Phil Gaimon (Bissell), who finished second overall at the Tour of the Gila, will look to animate the race. He will graduate to the WorldTour with Garmin next season and hopes to prove himself in the late-season races in Utah and Colorado. Gaimon loves to climb, has spent much of the summer at altitude in Big Bear, Calif., and will have plenty of opportunities to showcase the talent that has helped him earn the Garmin call-up.

The aforementioned “Bontrager boys,” especially Lawson Craddock and Nathan Brown, can always be expected to take their youthful enthusiasm and talent to unexpected heights. Craddock won the best young rider competition on his way to eighth overall at the Tour of California in May. He displayed his climbing talent when he attacked the leading group on Mount Diablo; though he cracked, he still finished a respectable seventh on the stage.

With such a wide-open field, the “first true Tour of Utah” should also produce one of the toughest stage race champions of the year in North America. Projecting who that might be is a tough ask with six days in the Beehive State set to kick off on Tuesday.