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Only one WorldTour team makes for better racing at Utah

WorldTour teams tend to control races. Since this Tour of Utah only has BMC in the peloton, fans are treated to unpredictable action.

LOGAN, Utah (VN) — Joey Rosskopf warned other teams at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah press conference on Sunday. He said BMC wasn’t interested in single-handedly controlling the peloton all week, despite being the only WorldTour team at the race. “We aren’t Team Sky,” he said. “We can’t ride on the front nonstop all week. It’s not really good for any of us, or for the racing.”

Rosskopf’s stern warning didn’t go unnoticed in the Tour of Utah’s opening stage on Monday. An anxious peloton thwarted several early breakaway attempts. Who would step up to ensure the expected sprint finish? Since BMC didn’t bring a dedicated sprinter to the race, the smaller, less-experienced teams needed to control the day.

This unpredictability makes the 2017 Tour of Utah exciting, compared to the cookie-cutter tactics often found in WorldTour races. A diverse mix of riders and teams go head to head without really knowing each other. Teams have to share responsibilities and rely on each other. It also gives developing riders a chance to lead and demonstrate their strength and tactical skill against established racers. For the bigger teams like BMC, it’s potentially an opportunity to shirk responsibility and play passenger.

BMC assistant sport director Jackson Stewart hoped for a quiet stage before Monday’s start. “If we have to take over we can, but we don’t want to,” he said. “Today is a little nerve-wracking because when the break goes, everyone is going to look at us.” BMC didn’t bring a dedicated sprinter to the race, and since stage 1 was a flat finish, the sprinters’ teams would be expected to lead the chase.

Rob Britton of Rally Cycling knew the stage might be chaotic. “With only one WorldTour team here, things can get a little crazy,” he said. “Sometimes a group of 20-25 guys will go up the road and the GC guys will just watch each other. The break of second- and third-tier GC contenders could get away and it changes the whole race.” However, in the first kilometers of racing it looked almost like the complete opposite would happen.

Not a single break was able to escape for over 40 kilometers of racing. Charging up Logan Canyon toward the first KOM, things finally started to shake out. “It took a little while for that break to go,” said Travis McCabe of UnitedHealthcare. “BMC was pretty much marking us out. We were trying to mark out the other sprint teams like Rally and Holowesko too, so it just took a long time for it to go.”

But the break finally went, and it included 10 riders, mostly from smaller teams. Rally, Axeon, BMC, and UHC all missed the move, leaving four of the strongest teams looking at each other as the break gained a seven-minute advantage. Heading toward the final climb and long descent to the finish, the sprinters’ teams finally started organizing.

Rally went to the front with sprinter Evan Huffman taking charge. Then, UHC and Axeon joined in the chase. Even BMC spent some time on the front, despite its determination to stay quiet on the sprint stage. “Once the break is gone and you don’t have anyone in there you have to take the responsibility, and that’s what Rally and we did, as well as BMC.” McCabe said.

Holowesko, on the other hand, was one of the few sprinter teams to land a man in the break. Andrei Krasilnikau’s position in the lead group provided an easier ride for his team until the finishing circuits in the final five kilometers. “It was super-hot and super-dry out there. “It was a long day,” Holowesko’s Tyler Magner said after winning the stage. “Our goal was to get in the breakaway and put as much pressure on the rest of the teams so we didn’t have to be at the front and pull.”

Krasilnikau’s move was one part tactics, another part luck in making the right break. The Continental team’s diligence paid off as the peloton worked hard to bring the escapees back. They finally caught them with less than 15 kilometers to go. “We saved all our bullets for the finish circuits,” Magner added. “John Murphy gave me an incredible lead-out in the last 500 meters coming out of the corner. It was a super-fast sprint.”

Holowesko’s fresher legs certainly helped Magner in the extremely close and chaotic finish. Christopher Lawless of Axeon Hagens Berman — another Continental team — missed the victory by inches while McCabe rounded out the podium in third.

Monday’s stage gave the Continental teams a chance to lead and dictate their own tactics at the Tour of Utah. The result wasn’t neat or tidy, but it was dynamic.

“Even though there aren’t as many WorldTour teams [this year], it’s still a high-caliber race,” McCabe said. High caliber and more exciting for fans, fewer WorldTour teams could be the best thing to happen to the Tour of Utah.