By Brian Holcombe
The National Racing Calendar rolls into Salt Lake City Tuesday evening as the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah returns in 2009 to challenge the mountain goats of the North American peloton. The five-stage race covers 325 miles and features many of the most demanding climbs in northern Utah.
The field in Utah will be the best in the race’s history with nearly every continental team presenting at least one serious overall contender. Rock Racing, BMC Racing Team and Felt-Holowesko Partners arrive in Utah with the strongest teams on paper, each holding multiple cards to play for stage wins in the mountains, time trials and the final criterium, as well as the overall.
Oscar Sevilla and Francisco Mancebo will provide a strong one-two punch for Rock, which BMC’s defending overall champion Jeff Louder and Brent Bookwalter will have to counter if they hope to defend Louder’s 2008 title. Peter Stetina and Kirk Carlsen will lead the Felt-Holowesko Partners squad as the team hopes to build on its sweep of the U23 national championships in early August.
Sevilla enters the race as the odds-on favorite to dethrone Louder. The Spaniard won his final preparation race ahead of Utah at Cascade and arrives in Utah with arguably the strongest team for the mountains.
Louder won the queen stage in 2008, which finished at Snowbird Resort on the penultimate day of the tour, and narrowly pulled out the overall win with a top three finish in the stage 5 individual time trial. Louder returns to his home race in 2009 with his eyes on a repeat following a third place overall finish at Cascade behind Sevilla and Mancebo.
“Utah is a big race on my calendar,” he said. “Like last year, we’ve been altitude camping, staying at Alta, Utah, which is at 8,500 feet, doing reconnaissance rides of the key stages and getting everyone acclimatized to the altitude and the temperature – the stresses that the race will put us under.”
Another hometown favorite, Dave Zabriskie (Garmin-Slipstream), announced last week that he would be at the start of the prologue under the state capital in Salt Lake City. Zabriskie will enter the race as a favorite for the prologue and time trial stage wins as well as the overall. Utah will serve as Zabriskie’s final preparation for the U.S. professional championships, where he will look to secure his fourth consecutive time trial jersey.
Other favorites for the general classification include 2005 champion Andrew Bajadali (Kelly Benefit Strategies), Chris Baldwin (OUCH-Maxxis), Burke Swindlehurst (Bissell) and Phil Zajicek (Fly V), although each will face difficulty in chasing the overall win in Utah against teams of such depth as Rock and BMC.
The 4.5 km out-and-back prologue features a slight uphill in the first half on “gravity hill” before returning to the finish beneath the capitol dome. Zabriskie should go head-to-head with Tom Zirbel (Bissell), who has won nearly every NRC time trial in 2009.
Distance: 2.8 miles
Start: 6:00 pm
Stage 1 covers two Category 1 climbs on Old Snowbasin Road and atop East Canyon Dam on the outskirts of Salt Lake City. From the top of the second KOM, the route plunges down the technical Emigration Canyon descent to finish on the flank of the Douglas Army Reserve Center. The descent to the finish should limit any time losses among the general classification riders and Felt-Holowesko’s Alex Howes could register a surprise stage win.
Distance: 85 miles
Start: 11:00 am
The peloton encounters the first of two mountaintop finishes on stage 2 from Thanksgiving Point to Mt. Nebo. With a mostly-flat run-in to the 4,000-vertical foot, 20-mile finish climb on the shoulders of the Wasatch Mountains’ highest point, the peloton should arrive on the climb largely intact. That shouldn’t last long, however, as the overall hopefuls will use the stage to put time into their rivals ahead of the stage 3 time trial. An on-form and motivated Phil Zajicek will be hard to beat on Mt. Nebo.
Distance: 77 miles
Start: 10:00 am
The 9.2-mile, pancake-flat time trial course follows the motor track at the Miller Motorsports Park. This short race of truth is the final tune-up ahead of the national championships and will again pit Zabriskie against Zirbel, with Ian McKissick (BMC) likely factoring as well.
Distance: 9.2 miles
Start: 6:30 pm
The queen stage of the 2009 Tour of Utah features three categorized climbs between Park City and Snowbird, including a mountaintop finish. The peloton will climb the Alpine Loop and Traverse Ridge ahead of the finale on the 12-mile, 8-10 percent climb of Little Cottonwood Canyon to Snowbird. The Sevilla/Mancebo duo will likely drive much of the pace to Snowbird and could wrap up the overall with a stage win.
Distance: 96 miles
Start: 11:00 am
Sebastian Haedo’s Colavita/Sutter Home sprint train should look to pull their sprint star to the stage win in Salt Lake City. Ivan Dominguez (Rock Racing) and newly anointed national criterium champion John Murphy (OUCH-Maxxis) will look to upset Haedo’s train in the finale.
Distance: 90 minutes
Start: 2:00 pm