2012 Tour of Utah: Is it America’s toughest stage race?

With 37,501 feet of climbing in six days, a team time trial and a closing stage with an uber-steep ascent, Utah opens Tuesday

OGDEN, Utah (VN) — The Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah claims to be America’s toughest stage race. A glance at the toothy 2012 course profile is enough to believe it’s true.

This year’s race covers 545 miles in six days. It climbs 37,501 feet, 10,000 of that on Saturday’s queen stage. A climb on the final day has a sustained section at 23 percent.

Organizers dropped the prologue and made day one a 132-mile road race, climbing 9,000 feet, starting and finishing in Ogden.

There are 13 King of the Mountain lines and 10 sprint lines. New this year is North American stage racing’s only team time trial — and it’s on a motor speedway.

America’s toughest stage race? We’ll find out for sure this week.

“I think, leading up to the weekend, we’re still going to have a fair amount of people bunched together,” said course director Todd Hageman, in his second year with the race.

“It’s not going to come down to a time trial — that’s the big one… It’s really up in the air. That’s the exciting thing.”

Stage 1: Tuesday, August 7,  Ogden-Ogden
131.7 miles, 8,939 feet of climbing

There’s no prologue this year. Instead, organizers decided to drop a lumpy, hot and windy road stage in its place.

“It’s a very difficult stage. It’s going to be hot,” Hageman said. “It’ll probably be a group of 30 or 40 guys sprinting it out.”

The stage includes four rated climbs, with the peloton hitting both sides of the Trapper’s Loop climb — a heated, exposed highway.

“There’s no coverage, there’s no shade. It’s pretty hot out there,” Hageman said.

The stage would appear to favor a break, but it’s hard to see any big names getting away on day one.

Stage 2: Wednesday, August 8, Tooele, Utah
13.5 miles (team time trial)

Stage 2 is the team time trial, 13.5 miles played out on the Miller Motorsports Park speedway, a road course with twists and turns. It promises to be a spectacle.

This will be another hot and windy day in the Utah desert, and the teams without a full complement of riders (like Liquigas-Cannondale and Omega Pharma-Quick Step) must limit their damages to Garmin-Sharp, which has to be the favorite for the win on this day.

“There’s no coverage from trees — it’s wide open,” Hageman said. “It’s interesting, too, that some of the teams put riders on their rosters that you wouldn’t necessarily think would be appropriate for the Tour of Utah … you’ve got some firepower that’s not there for the high mountains.”

It’s just 13.5 miles, but a rider like defending champion Levi Leipheimer or Timmy Duggan has to limit his damages on this day. Garmin-Sharp and RadioShack-Nissan will look to capitalize on their numbers.

“I haven’t ridden on the track yet, but I’ve heard the turns are wide enough that you can probably stay in the aero bars. At 11 turns a lap, it’s going to take a lot of coordination to keep everybody smooth,” said Champion Systems’ Craig Lewis, who will be lining up in Ogden.

Stage 3: Thursday, August 9, Ogden-Salt Lake City
85.5 miles, 7,134 feet of climbing

The second-shortest road stage in the race runs from Ogden to Salt Lake City and climbs 7,000 feet, with two sprint points and three KOMs, in Huntsville and Morgan.

The Tour of Utah has covered this ground in the past, and it’s ripe for fireworks. The day’s first climb hits the North Ogden Divide, a short but very steep climb that typically launches a breakaway.

“It’s a tough climb so early in the stage,” Hageman said. “Typically the last two times we’ve raced over this it’s been a small breakaway getting clear, and they’ve been able to just barely hold it at the finish.”

It’s too early to expect any true general classification throwdown — the big guns have to save their ammo for the weekend, which sees more than 17,000 feet of climbing.

Stage 4: Friday, August 10, Lehi-Salt Lake City
134 miles, 4,219 feet of climbing

Stage 4 is the “flattest” of the race, with 4,200 feet of elevation gain over 134 miles between Lehi and Salt Lake City. It’s also the longest, and could also be the hottest, with temperatures into the 100s in the desert.

The new route traces some of the old Pony Express line, heads into the desert and then returns to Salt Lake. The stage finishes in the city, on a Friday. It will be packed for what seems likely to be a sprint finish.

“We’re going from the south side of the valley all the way into Salt Lake City,” Hageman said. “It basically comes down to the wind.”

Stage 5: Saturday, August 11, Park City-Snowbird
101.1 miles, 10,000 feet of climbing

Saturday marks the Queen Stage of the 2012 Tour of Utah, from Park City to Snowbird. The 102-mile route takes riders over four KOM climbs — the Jordanelle, Alpine Loop, Suncrest and to Snowbird, where the stage finishes.

The uphill finish follows 10,000 feet of climbing and will drastically whittle the overall classification to the select contenders capable of winning on Sunday.

“This stage hits the high mountains,” Hageman said, adding that the elevation profile of the day’s final climb up Little Cottonwood Canyon mirrors that of L’Alpe d’Huez.

It’s here that the contenders must stay close to the lead — if time is lost here, it’s unlikely the rider will be able to take any back on the race’s final, and perhaps most difficult, day.

“It’s going to be tough for everybody,” Lewis said.

Stage 6: Sunday, August 12, Park City-Park City
76.7 miles, 6,844 feet of climbing

The race will come down to this day — the final stage with a final climb so steep it’s got the peloton pawing around for compacts and 28s.

“Empire Pass is a climb that nobody has seen. California, Colorado, nobody can touch it,” Hageman said, proudly. “The minimum gear that guys are grabbing is a 28.”

Upon review, this doesn’t seem to be hyperbole. The Empire Pass climb is only about six miles long. But what it lacks in length, it makes up for in its 3,000 feet climbed. The early slopes hit 14 percent, with three sections of more than 20 percent. The top rolls a bit.

“It’s awful. The word I’ve been using is ‘violent.’ It’s just violent,” Hageman said.

The final climb was recently a dirt road — it’s only been paved for a little more than a year. After the final climb, it’s a quick finish to Park City below, with a decent riser on the way to further sort the bunch and most likely decide the podium.

“The new climb they added at Guardsman Pass I did last year and don’t have very fond memories of it. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like in a race,” Lewis said.

We’ll find out — and soon.

Editor’s note: This preview initially listed stage 1’s distance as 32 miles. It is of course 131.7 miles. Climbing 9000 feet in 32 miles would be extremely difficult. We regret the error.