“America’s Toughest Stage Race”, the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah p/b Zions Bank is about to start. Who better to give us the lowdown on the stages and a few insights on the peloton than Salt Lake City resident Burke Swindlehurst of TeamGive p/b Blackbottoms.
“It’s very important to me on a variety of levels, obviously as a rider but also my expanding role with the race.” said Swindlehurst about the event. Director of competition for the 2010 edition, Swindlehurst is responsible for interacting with all the teams and directors. “I’ve been wearing a few different hats there. For me, it’s big on a lot of different levels just because I’ve put so much of my heart and soul into this, not just on the bike but after hours as well.”
Swindlehurst will be racing as part of the 1320 KFAN Elite Composite Team.
It all starts today at 6pm MT with the prologue. Follow @podium_live for updates during the race.
The field. “This is obviously the best field we’ve had assembled for the race.” (see roster)
Two returning champions are back. Last year’s winner Francisco Mancebo is riding for a local team, Canyon Bicycles. And 2008 winner, and Salt Lake City native Jeff Louder with the BMC team with US Road Champ George Hincapie and Brent Bookwalter. Racing solo, Levi Leipheimer (Radioshack) who just won Leadville 100 in a record time, can be counted on to be aggressive.
“And I’ve been trying quite a bit with Darren Lill [Fly V Australia] lately and the guy is flying up hill right now.” said Swindlehurst. “I think there’s the greatest number of possible winners we’ve ever had, usually it’s maybe 3 or 4 guys that have a legitimate shot of winning the race but I think this year, there is maybe 10 guys that come into this race with thoughts of maybe trying to win it.”
Last year, Mancebo took over the leader’s jersey after breaking away from the field on stage 2. The previous year, the race was tight until the final stage, the individual time trial where Louder overcame a 7-second deficit to win the overall after he had tamed the Snowbird stage the previous day.
This year, Swindlehust thinks that is will come down to the Queen Stage finishing at the top of Snowbird.
“I think it will come down to the final stage, particularly with Levi being here. He’s a guy who obviously has the talent and the depth to win the race but he doesn’t have a team. If I was in his position, I would probably wait and keep myself in the top 3 of 5 going into the last day and go for it on the final stage, I do think we’re going to see a showdown up Snowbird. That’s my prediction.”
Would Swindlehurst put his money on Leipheimer then? “It’s hard to say. If he was here with even two riders like at Gila, I would put my money on him, since he doesn’t have a team he’s going to have his work cut out for him. I think it’s almost anybody’s race within those 5 or 7 guys.”
Swindlehurst then went on to add a few more names to the contenders list, such as Phil Zajicek (Fly V Australia), “he’s another guy who can definitely challenge for the win”. And Chris Baldwin (UnitedHealthcare) who “has always been up there in the top.”
Mancebo is an interesting one. Last year, “I don’t think he would have won the race without Sevilla so it’s hard to say if he’s going to have the support he needs even if he has the form to be able to win the race but you can never count him out either.”
What about Tbird? “And then, I’ve been feeling pretty good on the bike myself, I’m not counting myself out either.” he said. “I definitely have my eyes set on a stage win for sure. I am part of a composite team, that has some very strong riders on it, I do think that going for the GC is definitely something I want to have a look at as well, and just play it by ear.”
Swindlehurst’s composite team includes Jelly Belly p/b Kenda teammates Mike Friedman, Anthony Colby and Carter Jones and Mt Khakis f/b Jittery Joe’s teammates Matt Cooke and Scott Tietzel
“I’d really like to see us race as a team, rather than individual riders, for one common interest whether that’s day to day going for stage wins or if one of us has the ability to go for the general classification.”
Breakout star. Last year a few riders turned heads with a great ride, sometimes it was quiet and you had to pay attention. Last year, Alex Howes (Holowesko Partners) flew up Snowbird to take the stage win, the Best Young Rider jersey and sealed his fate with a contract with Garmin-Transitions. Howes is currently racing in Europe but his Holowesko Partners/Garmin U-23 team will be in Utah.
There was also Matthew Busche, then with Kelly Benefit, who stuck with the big boys in a select group up Mt Nebo. Not long thereafter, he signed with Radioshack.
And Bookwalter won the prologue to quietly announced that he was back in his first national win since breaking his leg in April 2007.
Who will it be this year? “ I think if I was going to point my finger at anybody, it would come from my composite team, Carter Jones.” Swindlehurst quickly replied.
I would add to the list, Max Jenkins (UnitedHealthcare) and Rob Britton (BISSELL), if they show up with the same climbing legs they had at the SRAM Tour of the Gila.
The stages. No major changes to the route this year, except a change of venue for the criterium to Park City, which might surprise a few riders.
The race starts off with the Prologue presented by Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau, the same out-and-back 2.8 miles (4.5 km) course as last year.
“I wouldn’t call it a formality, obviously there is time to be lost there. More or less it’s just going to set up the pecking order into the next stage road race. I expect to see the usual players up there, Bookwalter has shown he’s the man for the prologue, if I was a betting man I’d probably put money on him.” said Swindlehurst.
Wednesday brings the Stage 1 Presented by University of Utah Health Care, the 85.2 miles (137.1 km) from Ogden to Salt Lake City using the same route as last year including 4 climbs for a total of 6,400 feet of climbing.
Last year, Mancebo and his Rock Racing teammate Oscar Sevilla, attacked on the climb to the second and last KOM, caught and passed the break on the final uncategorized climb, Big Mountain, and kept on going to cross the finish line together, 25 seconds ahead of the lead select group.
“I think guys are going to be a lot more vigilant when it comes to people launching up Big Mountain. I don’t think we’re going to see something like that this year, just because guys are going to be knowing that something like that is possible.” chuckled Swindlehurst. “But you never know. If you get a couple strong guys together like last year, all bets are off.”
Stage 2 Presented by Xango is a re-design of the Thanksgiving Point to Nebo route. The 78.5 miles (126.3 km) course is mostly flat with the exception of a grueling 20 mile (32 km), with 4,554 ft. (1388 m) climb to the finish.
“The stage is pretty much like last last year’s stage for the first half of the race but instead of heading east to the north approach of Mt Nebo, we’re going to continue heading south into the town of Nephi, and then we’ll head east and go up the south approach of Mt Nebo. The south side is a shorter distance, obviously it’s the same amount of elevation gain but since it is in a shorter amount of time, it’s going to be much steeper. I think it’s going to be even more decisive than last year’s Mt Nebo stage if that’s possible.”
In 2009, Lill took the matter into his own hands at the bottom of the tough 30 km climb and flew away from a select lead group of 9 riders to take the win atop of Mt Nebo on his 27th birthday.
Stage 3 Presented by teamgive on Friday, is the 9.2-mile time trial at the Miller Motorsports Park. The course meanders through the Park with some narrower sections and tight turns, some interesting out and backs and the wide banked turns on the track itself.
Last year, Tom Zirbel of the BISSELL team, clocked the fastest time of seventeen minutes even on the 14.5 km (9.2 mi) course with Ian McKissick, then with BMC and Bookwalter taking second and third.
The criterium on Stage 4 Presented by Heiden Davidson Orthopedics might surprise quite a few. Moved to Park City, the 1-mile course includes a leg busting climb, all raced at over 7000 feet above sea level.
“I think that’s the most significant change to the race because it is a day before the queen stage and it’s also going to be very difficult. I wouldn’t put on par with Nevada City, but it’s probably not far off. There’s going to be some significant elevation gain every lap and from what I understand the grade is 12%, straight up and straight down. I don’t necessarily it’s a day that GC is going to be won but I think it’s a day that GC could be loss. I do anticipate that whoever wins that stage is going to be a GC contender.”
And then, the race concludes with the Queen Stage on Sunday. The Stage 5 Presented by Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort offers up 11,000 feet (3,352.8 m) of climbing over the 100 miles (161 km) which takes riders up difficult Alpine Loop early on. Then they plunge down a twisty, narrow highway back into and through suburbia, to go over a “small” bump over Traverse Ridge before they have to tackle the deciding 8-12 percent climb up Little Cottonwood Canyon to the Creekside Center at the Snowbird Ski & Summer resort.
“I don’t know if there’s any secret, with the amount of climbing in the stage you just have to have it.” said Swindlehurst.
Last year, in a now famous story, Howes grabbed a hot dog and attacked the dwindling break at the bottom of the final brutal climb up to Snowbird and soloed away for the win. Part of the break, Swindlehurst chased but had to settle for second on the stage.
“I saw that last year, knew the stage like the back of my hard and I didn’t mark the right person, once I realized that it’s like ‘alright I’ve got my work cut out for me’ and I wasn’t able to do it. Maybe the third time is the charm for me.”
“America’s Toughest Race”. It’s not just the depth of the field, and the tough stages that challenge riders in Utah. There’s of course the altitude, with the lowest point of the race at around 4300 feet and the highest at 9000 feet, the top of Mt Nebo in stage 1. And then, there’s the weather with highs in the 80s and 90s, hovering close to 100s.
“I think there’s a variety of things that go into us being able to make the claim of being America’s Toughest Race. Obviously, the actual altitude during the stage, the amount of elevation gained during the race, the weather, this race has a little bit of everything. If you went and asked riders what the hardest race of the year is, I think you’re going to hear Tour of Utah more often than not.” concluded Swindlehurst.