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Tour of Utah proves its importance for domestic development

Billed as "America's Toughest Stage Race," the Tour of Utah serves as an important stepping stone for younger riders and teams.

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (VN) — The Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah wrapped up Sunday after seven dynamic stages that produced seven different stage winners. Rally Cycling’s Rob Britton claimed his first overall victory in Utah in his seventh appearance at the race. This was the 13th edition of the Tour of Utah, which tags itself as “America’s Toughest Stage Race.”

Known for its challenging course and a mix of WorldTour and domestic teams, Utah is the springboard for developing riders hoping to jump up a level.

“Utah has always been important for us,” Axel Merckx, team manager of the young Axeon Hagens Berman team said. “Utah has always been our goal for the end of the year. Utah and Colorado both, which are back-to-back now.”

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For Axeon, Holowesko-Citadel, and other domestic Continental squads, Utah provides a taste of top UCI racing for their developing riders before they make the jump to Pro Continental and/or WorldTour teams.

“For new teams coming up in the states, [Utah] is a great opportunity because it has the distance, the racing, and the competition you want to test yourself,” Holowesko sport director Thomas Craven said. “You have that opportunity to test yourself and say, ‘this is great, I want to do this more,’ or, ‘I don’t want to do this.’”

Five years ago, the Tour of Utah invited the Holowesko development team, then known as Hincapie, to the race.

“We were like, ‘Oh man this is it, this is so cool,’” Craven said.

The team’s Ty Magner, 22, finished third on a stage that year. This year, Magner stormed into Utah by winning stage 1 and wearing the leader’s jersey for a day. Holowesko followed that up with another stage win, this time with John Murphy’s sprint finish on stage 4.

Evolving from a debut team to serious contenders, Holowesko embodies the development opportunities on which Utah built its reputation. However, this year as only one WorldTour team (BMC Racing) started the race.

“It’s unfortunate that there are not as many WorldTour teams here, but I think it shows how difficult the race is,” Craven said. “They’re a little scared to come here.”

Any concerns about Utah’s weaker field quickly evaporated as the mix of Continental and Pro Continental teams lobbed tactical and aggressive racing at BMC. It’s the most prestigious and important race of the year for most of these riders, adding impetus to put on a good show.

“I know from my own experience when you’re coming from that point as a Continental or Pro Continental team and how deep you can dig to make it count,” BMC’s Brent Bookwalter said. “It doesn’t matter the level of the team, willpower and the commitment go a long way. All the teams here aren’t to be taken lightly.”

Despite Utah’s impressive racing and Holowesko’s success, Craven was disappointed that the two other American-registered WorldTour teams, Cannondale-Drapac and Trek Factory Racing, didn’t show.

“I think all American teams should be here because it has become the hardest race in the United States,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you want to be here?”

The WorldTour’s expanding race calendar is one explanation for WorldTour squads passing up a chance to race in Utah. Teams are spread thin and forced to pick and chose races carefully.

Utah’s overall winner Rob Britton added that Utah’s timing in the season is also problematic.

“Utah is one of those races that doesn’t get the turnout that it deserves,” he said. “It’s a really hard race but the scheduling conflict really throws it off, which sucks because it’s such a great race.”

After the USA Pro Challenge disappeared following the 2015 edition, Utah was left to dangle out on its own. With no other big American races to piggyback with, WorldTour teams had less motivation to race in Utah. Carver hopes the return of Colorado will help draw more top-level teams in the future and keep Utah’s reputation for helping riders and teams up the ladder. Races like Utah are necessary for these on-the-cusp teams hoping to sneak into bigger races like the Amgen Tour of California.

With California’s WorldTour status comes limitations on the number of Continental teams it is allowed to invite to the race. This caused some contention between domestic teams earlier this year as Rally and Jelly Belly were invited instead of Holowesko and Axeon. Utah’s mix of teams provides the platform for riders and teams to showcase their strengths in hopes of selection for next year’s big event.

It’s like tryouts for WorldTour racing.

“That would be the ultimate dream, for us to move up to a level that we can race in California,” Craven said.

Until then, however, Craven and his Holowesko team are proud to be part of Utah’s development history.

“It’s super important for us to continue that legacy as well as continue to show everyone that there is a development process for these teams to move up.”