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Tour of Utah 2018 preview: Climbers’ showdown on tap

Is it "America's Toughest Race?" With tons of climbing in the 2018 edition, Tour of Utah will again be a climber's delight.

CEDAR CITY, Utah (VN) — The event that bills itself as “America’s Toughest Stage Race” kicks off this week, and the 2018 edition of the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah should be friendly to the mountain goats — as it always is.

With seven days of racing on tap, the Utah peloton will face plenty of challenging ascents in the UCI 2.HC-rated race.

“This race is at altitude. Racing in the States, typically on big roads, it’s going to come down to just climbing I think,” 2015 champion Joe Dombrowski (EF Education First-Drapac) told VeloNews at the teams presentation.

The 27-year-old Virginian is one of several marquee North American climbers set to battle in Utah this week, with teammate Mike Woods, defending champ Rob Britton (Rally Cycling), and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) in the mix as well.

A short prologue will determine the early race leader, but it is the lone time trial on the parcours. The stages that follow will have a much larger GC impact.

“The prologue being on a road bike even neutralizes the [time trial] factor even more,” said BMC’s Brent Bookwalter, referring to the race’s rule that forbids riders from riding dedicated time trial bikes. Bookwalter won stage 2 last year en route to fifth overall. “Still it’s a pure climber’s race.”

Rob Britton
Rob Britton became the first Canadian to win the Tour of Utah overall in 2017. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

The first climb of Tuesday’s stage 1 happens to be the highest in the race, reaching 3,200 meters (10,600 feet). A downhill run to a flatter finish will make it ideal for stage-hunters, but the climbers will have a real chance at the line the very next day. Stage 2, which starts and finishes in Payson, takes on Tour of Utah staple Mount Nebo. Although not a summit finish, the stage concludes with a tricky descent, meaning that the hapless riders that get dropped on the climb will have trouble getting back into contention before the line.

Stage 3 from Antelope Island to Layton and stage 4 in Salt Lake City won’t likely have major GC implications but do feature plenty of lumps.

Then comes a one-two punch of final stages sure to decide the race.

Stage 5 takes on Guarsdman Pass and then zooms down the other side to start the Little Cottonwood Canyon climb to the Snowbird Resort finish. Whether they’re battling for the stage win or in a select group behind a breakaway, the GC hopefuls will have plenty of opportunities to make their mark on their way up the lengthy final climb.

Stage 6 concludes the race with a short 123.4-kilometer day of climber-friendly racing. Wolf Creek Ranch climb, with its double-digit gradients, awaits a little over 50 kilometers into the stage. Then comes a descent to the bottom of the Pine Canyon Road, where the Empire Pass ascent begins. The road has been repaved since the Tour of Utah’s last visit. That will make for a more straightforward climber’s battle to the top, on several stretches of grades over 10 percent. The last time the climb featured in the race, Lachlan Morton claimed the win there en route to his overall win in 2016.

Morton dug deep on the Tour of Utah’s final climb in 2016, riding away from everyone for the stage and GC win. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

All totaled, the Tour of Utah will throw 13,344 meters (43,780 feet) of climbing at the riders.

As such, the race has drawn many of the top climbing talents in North America. Britton and Rally will face plenty of WorldTour notables in their attempt to defend the GC title.

Bookwalter said BMC has big ambitions in Utah but pointed to other squads as having purer climbing favorites.

“Joe, Mike Woods, on paper EF has one of the better climbing squads. The Mitchelton guys, I was training with Jack Haig last week in Park City and he’s looking really sharp,” Bookwalter said.

“Ben Hermans coming off a Tour of Austria win, the last time I had a good overall performance in Utah I was fourth overall in Austria and Ben was [second], if that’s any indication he’ll be in the mix. The Italian guys are always a wild card and then obviously Britton, who won last year.”

Gavin Mannion and Serghei Tvetcov, who finished second and third overall last year, will line up alongside Janier Acevedo to give UnitedHealthcare a formidable GC challenge. LottoNL-Jumbo’s one-two punch of Sepp Kuss and Neilson Powless, Trek-Segafredo’s Peter Stetina, and Holowesko-Citadel’s TJ Eisenhart are others to watch in the overall.

Meanwhile, stage-hunters like Rally’s Ty Magner, UnitedHealthcare’s Travis McCabe, EF’s Alex Howes, and Trek’s Kiel Reijnen will look to days like stage 3 and 4 to snatch wins in faster finishes.

The action gets underway on Monday in St. George, which sits in a desert valley near the Arizona border. Temperatures are expected to climb well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately for the Utah peloton, it won’t be long before the race climbs to higher altitudes, where — hopefully — cooler weather and compelling racing await.