There was no plan B for the UnitedHealthcare team on stage 4 at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah earlier today. This was after all the only sprinters stage at the race and the squad had brought their three fast men, Jake Keough, Hilton Clarke and Robert Förster to Utah. The eight riders on the squad went all in.
Tough all three are proven sprinters with many wins under their belt, everyone has a role. “Usually Hilton Clarke leads us, he’s got a lot of experience and very smooth and usually Frösi is in the middle, going for the line and I go behind him. We do that at every crit, every road race, it’s a good system.” Keough told podiuminsight at the start of the stage in Lehi.
It is a good system but there have been some hiccups in the train this year, as Jeff Louder told us prior to the stage race. “I think the team has struggled to have some luck at certain moments, we’ve gotten really close to some good things and not quite had it. I’m thinking of China where we did lead-outs almost every day and had it pretty well dialed but we just couldn’t quite get the victory.”
Keough has had some bad luck this year with crashes, but the 25-year old was all smiles at the start. “My condition is pretty good so the climbing hasn’t been too bad. I feel pretty good, I think Hilton, Frosi and myself are all in good shape.”
Wanting no surprises, the sprinters also scoped out the finish after stage 3. “It’s right next to the hotel so we had a look at the finish. We’re not climbers so we went and got an ice cream last night and we saw the finish.” laughed Clarke.
Louder was the captain on the road, making all the decisions while Chris Jones, Ben Day and Philip Deignan acted as the muscle.
It didn’t take long for the need to flex that muscle in the 134.3 mile stage after the early break of five riders started to push the gap up to six minutes only 21 miles into the stage. With no threats to yellow jersey Christian Vande Velde in the move, his team Garmin-Sharp was quite content to let the riders off the front. UnitedHealthcare decided to take control.
“There are a couple of hard stages the next two days and we knew that everyone wanted a bit of a break and maybe even a lot of people were happy with the break to stick so we committed early. We knew we wanted a bunch sprint.” Keough said.
Day, Jones and an ailing Deignan took their place at the front of the field, and started the chase when the gap hit the 10 minute mark.
“We let it go to 10 (minutes) and then we decided that we needed to ride. We got other teams, Exergy stepped up pretty quickly, finally Garmin did as well. We knew the stage was going to be really fast and I had a pretty good idea that there was going to be a lot of tailwind so with a wind like that you have to keep the break in check. It was a strong group so we couldn’t let them have 20 minutes, on a mountain stage you could, but on a day like today it’s not safe.” Louder said.
The trio with help from riders from other teams started to bring the gap down. Slowly. Everything seemed to be going to plan until Keough went down after another rider inadvertently came over his front wheel with 49 miles (80 km) to go.
“My helmet blew to pieces.” said Keough who went down hard on his back and head.
His first thought seconds after the crash was about his teammates. “I was actually kind of bummed out because my teammates were all riding at the front and I knew that I had to get up and still give it a go. I couldn’t let these guys down.”
Keough quickly got back up and rejoined the field. The gap continued to slowly go down, all the way to 3:30 with 33 miles (53 km) to go until it held steady. The strong riders in the break were not giving up and Louder had to put himself in the rotation.
“I was captain on the road so I was trying to keep those three motivated and also keep everything in check, try to think so that the sprinters didn’t have to and I knew that in the back in the mind that once things got dire that I was obviously going to have to jump in. That was that balance of keeping the break in check and when it’s time to help them out. It’s a team effort to win a sprint.” said Louder who jumped into the fray with 18 miles (30 km) to go.
The situation did look dire when the gap was still 45 seconds at three km to go. Would the break stick on the sprinter’s stage?
“It was a nip and tuck obviously.” Louder said. “It was a really smart group of five riders and that made it that much harder to bring it back. There’s a bit of mind games when you’re in the front, if you race smart and think about what’s happening you can play with the peloton a little bit and I think that they did to their advantage as best they could. It’s hard to hold off a group once they smell the finish line like that. Hats off to them for making it as close as they did.”
With the break still not reeled in, the decision was made to use Clarke in the chase removing him from the lead-out train. The break was reeled in just before the last corner, at only 800 meters from the finish line.
“I’m not sure exactly who was still on the front entering the corner. I think Optum came over the top of us with a few hundred meters before the corner. I was battling the Optum guys because I was stuck on the outside, Forster and (Rory) Sutherland were in front of me and I couldn’t quite get on their wheel, I was in the wind from before the corner. Then, a few riders hit out around me and I kind of let them in and Robert was able to go and keep the speed high for me, and then Tyler jumped and I came on his wheel and did the sprint.” Keough said.
Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp) opened up his sprint with 250 meters to go, and Keough came around him at around 200 meters to go and held it for the win. “It felt like a long way, there were these lines on the road and I was chasing the lines.”
On the eve of the Tour of Utah, Louder said that though the train was dialed in, the team seemed to not be able to get the final one percent for the win. Was today’s train perfect we asked?
“I was chasing early so you’ll have to ask Jake but when you win you can’t say you didn’t do it right.” Louder replied.
Keough concluded, “The team rode from way way out. There’s all kinds of different scenarios where in the last kilometer things can be the perfect situation but to me, the perfect situation is when they put that much respect, that much responsibility and trust in the sprinters and then the sprinters can deliver. So in that regards, yes it was perfect.”