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Will Joe Dombrowski defend his title at the Tour of Utah?

Photo: Cannondale-Garming Pro Cycling




01.08.2016 @ 23:58 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Many American stage races have been unable to survive after a few years at the UCI level but one race seems to have made the jump successfully. The mountainous Tour of Utah has developed a reputation as the hardest race in North America and coming at a perfect time as a preparation event for the Vuelta a Espana, it has firmly established itself as a key race in the early part of August.


For years, American riders have been among the best in the world but the international racing scene in the country has not been able to match the development of the athletes from the country. The combination of the long distance from the European heartland and a calendar loaded with traditional, well-established races in cycling’s traditional key countries have made it difficult for the many American races to attract a strong international field.


It has not been for a lack of trying. The Coors Classic was a huge event in the 1980s but it disappeared from the calendar after the 1988 edition. The Tour de Georgia looked like it had established itself as a regular fixture on the April calendar until it disappeared in 2008. The Tour of Missouri was run successfully for a few years but that race was also unable to secure the funding to keep it alive. Most recently, the USA Pro Challenge looked like it was going to become a huge, regular event that was going to compete with the Tour of California for the North American crown but the 2016 edition of the race has been cancelled, with the future of the event still up in the air.


The great success story is of course the Tour of California which has been able to establish itself firmly as North America’s biggest race and is on the verge of joining the new, bigger WorldTour. However, there’s another race that has successfully made the jump to the UCI level too. In 2016, the Tour of Utah goes into its sixth year as a high-level UCI race and it has found a perfect role on the calendar that makes it feasible for the organizers to keep the race afloat in the coming years.


Unlike the race in California which was a created as a big UCI race right from the start, the Tour of Utah started as an amateur race, the Thanksgiving Points Stage Race, in 2000. It received its current name in 2004 and got its current owners in 2007 after the race had been added to the UCI calendar as a 2.2 event in 2006. Like many other races, the jump was a difficult one and the 2007 edition was cancelled due to a lack of funding. However, the new organizers managed to revive the race and after two years on the national calendar, it made the big jump to the top level when it was organized as a 2.1 race in 2010. Since then it has been a top-level race with WorldTour riders in attendance and for the second year in a row, it is even a 2.HC race on the international calendar.


It is no wonder that the race has managed to establish itself on the calendar. Held in the first week of August, it comes at a perfect time for riders to restart their season after a summer break and the mountainous course makes it a perfect preparation event for the Vuelta a Espana. Unlike the USA Pro Challenge which was held later in the month, the race gives the riders time to return to Europe and adjust to the new time zone before the start of the Spanish grand tour and so it is able to compete with the Vuelta a Burgos and other established European races as the preferred testing ground for the Spanish grand tour.


What makes it an even better preparation is the altitude. The race includes several climbs of more than 3000m of altitude and so it is a perfect substitution for a traditional high-altitude training camp. The riders can spend a few weeks in Utah before ending their training block by doing a high-level race with lots of mountains. The altitude and ability to adapt to the difficult conditions have always been key elements in the race and played a huge role in determining the outcome.


Nonetheless, the race remains a largely American affair. The WorldTour teams in attendance are mostly those with a strong American connection and the list of winners is dominated by local riders. However, it seems to gain a better and better reputation internationally and this year’s field is probably the most international yet, with teams like IAM, Nippo-Vini Fantini, ONE and Fortuneo-Vital Concept all heading to the States for one week of quality racing.


The race is all about climbing and it is the only top-level American race that doesn’t have a time trial. This is one of the few races that the pure climbers can realistically target as the climbs are steeper and tougher than many of the mountains found in most of the USA and they don’t have to deal with time trial or high stress in tricky flat stages. The wide roads in America make it a much more relaxed race where it all comes down to the ability to climb and handle the altitude.


This is reflected in the recent edition which was won by Joe Dombrowski who rode to a solo victory in the queen stage to the Snowbird Ski Resort and defended himself well on the tough final stage over the Empire Pass. He won the race with a 50-second advantage over current teammate Michael Woods and 1.05 over Brent Bookwalter and will be back to defend his title as he gears of for the Vuelta.


The course

While the Tour of California usually varies the course quite a bit, the Tour of Utah is very traditional when it comes to the route design. Every year the race starts with five undulating or flat stages and then the GC comes down to a tough final weekend. Saturday’s queen stage to the Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort has an uphill finish and is usually the most important but the final stage to Park City with the steeper Empire Pass in the finale means that nothing is decided until the very end.


This year’s course is a bit harder than usual. The race will again be decided in the difficult final weekend with the two well-known key stages but there’s another tough climbing stage already on the third day. Here the riders will return to the difficult climb of Mount Nebo which was last used in 2013 and even though it’s a downhill finish, it offers s first chance to shake up the GC. The first two stages should give a few opportunities for sprinters while stages 4 and 5 are lumpy and could be decided by breakaways or in reduced bunch sprints.


Stage 1

The first stage in Utah has traditionally been for the sprinters and it looks like it will be no different in 2016. At 134.2km, the stage between Zion Canyon Village and Cedar City is short and it is by no means flat. After 20 relatively easy kilometres, the next 70km are all uphill and lead to the top of the Bristlecone climb at the 95km mark, with another KOM sprint coming 23km before than point. However, the final 40km consist of a long descent and three laps of a relatively flat 4.1km circuit.


There’s a huge amount of climbing in this stage but it’s more of a long, gradual uphill section than a real climb. Some of the heavier guys may find it a bit too tough but most of the sprinters should be able to survive. Many want to ease themselves into the race as they know what is coming up later in the week so it will be a surprise if the sprint teams fail to grab one of their few opportunities in the race.




Stage 2

The sprinters won’t have many opportunities in this year’s Tour of Utah so they have to make the most of it whenever the course has a relatively flat finish. That’s the case in the 159km stage 2 which brings the riders from Escalante to Torrey. Again there’s a big climb on the menu as a lumpy start and the warm-up climb at Hogsback leads to the difficult Boulder Mountain. However, the top comes at the 84km mark which means that there are still 75km to go. After the descent, the riders will head to the finish where they will end the race by doing two laps of a relatively flat 27.3km circuit. In the end, a slightly uphill finishing straight of 1800m await the riders in Torrey.


This could be the final chance for the sprinters in this year’s race and again then are unlikely to miss their opportunity. Boulder Mountain is harder than the climb in stage one but it comes way too early to play a major role. There will be lots of time for the sprint teams to organize a chase so we should get a second consecutive bunch sprint in Torrey on day 2.




Stage 3

One of the main features of this year’s course is the return of Mount Nebo after a two-year absence. It makes its appearance in the 191.8km stage 3 which will bring the riders from Richfield to Payson. The first 140km are among the flattest in the entire race but it will all just be a warm-up for the difficult finale. In the end, the riders will tackle the category 1 climb that averages 6% over 17km and has a pretty steep first half where the gradient is mostly 8-9%. The second half is a lot easier and less regular. The top comes with 39.8km to go and they are almost all downhill. Only the final 2km are really flat and includes two sharp turns before the riders get to the 1100m finishing straight.


When this finale was last used in 2013, Lachlan Morton rode away on Mt. Nebo and he managed to keep a reduced bunch at bay, taking the win with a 34-second advantage over Greg Van Avermaet who won the sprint for second. There is little doubt that it will create a first shake-up in the GC but it is still unlikely that we will see a repeat of Morton’s solo win. The final part of the climb is easy and there’s a long descent to the finish so it should be more of an elimination race before we head for a sprint from a small group in Payson.




Stage 4

The sprinters know that they have to make the most of their opportunities in the first two stages but some of them may be hopeful that they can be in the mix on stage 4 too. The 154km between Im Flash and Kearns don’t have a single categorized climb but that doesn’t mean that they are flat. In fact, it is up and down almost all day and there is barely a single metre of flat roads. In the end, they will do three laps of a 6.4km circuit that includes a short, steep climb before the riders descend to the final 1500m which are only very slightly uphill. The final turn comes just before the flamme rouge.


The finish in Kearns hasn’t been used since the race became a UCI race and so many are uncertain about how hard it will be. With time gaps having opened up in stage 3 and many sprinters uncertain about their ability to survive, it could be a day for a strong breakaway and a late attack on the final climb could also pay off. Otherwise, we should get a reduced bunch sprint but it is hard to know how big of a field we will have in the end.




Stage 5

The classics riders and strongest sprinters hope to get one final chance before the race becomes all about the GC in the final weekend. The fifth stage will bring the riders over 186km from Antelope Island State Park to Bountiful and are another challenging affair. After 70 flat kilometres, the riders will tackle the climbs of North Ogden Divide and Trappers Loop in quick succession before they head along flat roads to the difficult finale. Here they will pass close to the finish before going up the final category 3 climb for the first time. It is followed by one lap of a 14.6km circuit that includes the climb just 11km from the finish. The climb averages 10% over 2.1km and from the top it is slightly downhill all the way to the finish. It’s a technical finale with several turns inside the final 3km, the final sharp corner coming just 500m from the line.


The stage is an almost identical copy of the one that was used last year. Back then, Logan Owen won a reduced bunch sprint from a group of 47 riders and we could very well have a similar scenario this time. However, it’s also a very good day for a breakaway for riders that have lost time in the previous stages and a late attack on the short, steep climb could also pay off. The GC riders probably prefer to save energy for the big stages in the weekend.




Stage 6

After five days that have mainly been about survival, it is time for the GC riders to show their cards in the most important stage of the race. The 183.1km queen stage will bring the riders from Snowbasin Resort to the well-known finish at the Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort. After a flat first half, the riders will climb the difficult Guardsman Pass (12km, 7%) which has a very steep first part and again gets steeper near the top which comes with 46.1km to go. From there it is a descent to the bottom of the final climb which averages 8% over 10.3km and is a very regular affair that is slightly more difficult in the middle section.


This is the big day in the race and where it is all usually decided. Last year Joe Dombrowski laid the foundations for his victory by winning here and Tom Danielson’s two wins were both based on tough battles with Chris Horner here. The final climb is so hard that the best climbers can make a difference and it is very likely that the overall winner will emerge here after a tough battle on the steep slopes.




Stage 7

The final climb in the queen stage may be the most important of the race but the most difficult probably comes on the final day. As usual, the stage ends with a short, intense mountain stage around Park City where the tough Empire Pass and the very difficult descent to the finish mean that nothing is decided until the very end.


The 125.7km around Park City have a flat start before the riders get to the Wolf Creek Ranches climb at the midpoint. From there, they will descend to the intermediate sprint in Midway at the bottom of the steep Empire Pass which averages 8% over 12km. The first 6km are the steepest and it gets significantly easier in the final 4km. The top comes 10.7km from the finish and is followed by a very technical descent that ends at the flamme rouge where the riders will take two turns in quick succession. From there, it is slightly uphill all the way to the finish.


In the last two years, the race leader has defended himself well in this stage but in 2013 Tom Danielson turned everything around by dropping Chris Horner on the Empire Pass. Both the climb and the descent are very difficult and if the climbers are at a similar level, it is possible to change things right until the end of the race. Empire Pass is hard enough to make a big difference so no one is going to win the race if he has a bad day on one of Utah’s toughest climbs that is going to crown a well-deserved winner of the race.




The favourites

As said, the Tour of Utah is one of the select few stage races that can be won by a pure climber. There isn’t much stress in the flat road stages and there is no time trial. This means that most of the climbers should get to the final weekend with their GC options intact and then it will probably all come down to who has the best climbing legs in Snowbird and on Empire Pass.


Stages 1, 2 and 4 are unlikely to make any difference at all and should be for sprinters or breakaways. Stage 5 offers a chance to make a late attack but as last year’s stage showed, it is unlikely to pay dividends. With two tough stages coming up, the GC riders will probably keep their powder dry and so that stage is unlikely to play a role either.


Stage 3 is an interesting one and as Lachlan Morton showed in 2013, it is a chance for a good climber to make a difference. However, there’s a long way to the finish and it’s not a day for a rider like Joe Dombrowski to make a move. Cannondale have a strong team to control the race so we doubt that anyone will be able to repeat Morton’s feat. Hence, we expect an elimination race where you can lose the race if you haven’t adapted to the altitude but it is unlikely to be a day to win the race.


Hence, it should all come down to stages 6 and 7 and the two key climbs together with the technical descent from Empire Pass. This means that the race is likely to be won by the best climber and this puts defending champion Joe Dombrowski on top of our list of favourites. The American has long been regarded as one of the biggest talents in the world but different health issues have set him back. Last year he finally showed what he can do in this race that suits him down to the ground. This year he has been even stronger and he got an international breakthrough at the Giro where he was clearly one of the best climbers. He rode aggressively in the mountains and was very close to a stage win on several occasions. He went on to play a key role for Andrew Talansky at the Tour de Suisse.


Dombrowski is building form for the Vuelta where he will be riding in support of Talansky but this race is his big personal goal. Hence, he should already be at a pretty advanced level and being a pure climber, he is tailor-made for this race. He has proved that he can handle the altitude and he will be fired up for this event. He will be under more pressure but he will have one of the strongest teams at his side. If he is climbing like he did in the Giro, we doubt that anyone will be able to match him and so he is our favourite to win the race.


In the Giro, one of his biggest rivals in the breakaways was Darwin Atapuma who was even closer to a stage win. The pair were pretty evenly matched on the climbs and both went on to shine in the Tour de Suisse where Atapuma finally got his deserved stage win. Since then, the Colombian has had a break and so his form is a bit uncertain. Usually, he needs a bit more racing than Dombrowski to find his best form and unlike the American, he doesn’t have a big focus on this race. On the other hand, it’s a race that suits him very well and he should find the altitude to his liking. If he has returned to his best level, he is one of the best climbers here and then he could very well take the overall win.


Dombrowski is not the only Cannondale card. Andrew Talansky is maybe an even better climber but the Vuelta captain is mainly here to prepare for the Spanish grand tour. His main goal is to work for Dombrowski but he will be ready to take over if the leader fails. After two years of suffering, he has finally left his health issues behind him and in the Tour de Suisse he was close to his best level again. As the Vuelta is his big goal, he may be even stronger here. We may not see what he can do as he is mainly a domestique but if he gets his chance, he could very well turn out to be the best rider in the race.


Trek are here with Peter Stetina who has had a remarkable return to form following his bad crash at last year’s Vuelta al Pais Vasco. The American has just completed the Tour de France and that always makes it tricky to find out how he’s going. Some are flying after the French race while others are completely dead. Stetina will probably only know more about his real form when the racing gets serious in the high mountains. If he has recovered well from the Tour, he has a boost that nobody else has and his second place finish in the Tour of California queen stage proves that he is one of the best American climbers.


Among the continental riders, Lachlan Morton is clearly the strongest candidate. The Australian has finally returned to his best this year after he got his big breakthrough at this race three years ago. He is aiming at return to the WorldTour and this is a great place to show himself. He has already won the Tour of the Gila and he was close to victory in the queen stage at the Tour of California. His second place in the Cascade Cycling Classic proves that his form is great and as a pure climber, he is perfectly suited to this race.


One of the big question marks for the race is Janez Brajkovic. The Slovenian has been far from his best level in recent years but now he may be back on track. After the Tour of California he underwent heart surgery and just a few days later he finished sixth in the Tour de Slovenie queen stage. This is an indication that he may be returning to the level that made him one of the best riders a few years ago. At last year’s Abu Dhabi Tour, he proved that he can still climb with the best and if he has really left his health issues behind, he should find this race to his liking.


The same goes for Janier Acevedo who is a former stage winner here. However, his time in the WorldTour was ill-fated and nothing really suggests that he is back at his former level. On the other hand, the Tour of the Gila indicated that he still has what it takes and this race is one that suits him really well as there is no time trial and it takes place at altitude. He hasn’t raced since the Vuelta a Colombia so his form is uncertain but as this race is a big goal for him he should be good.


Axeon are here with Neilson Powless who was the big revelation at the Tour of Calfornia. The American was one of the best in the queen stage and if he hadn’t had bad luck in the final stages, he would have finished higher in the overall standings than ninth. He is more of a versatile rider than a real climber so this race may be too hard and he still needs to confirm that he can back his results from the spring up. Teo Geoghan-Hart is another great candidate for the development team and he should be up there too. However, he has never managed to match the very best in the big races.


In addition to Stetina, Trek have Julian Arredondo and Riccardo Zoidl. If this had been 2014, Arredondo would have been one of the big favourites but he is no longer the rider he once was. He has been set back by numerous health issues and nothing suggests that he back on track. Zoidl seems to be getting better after a difficult start to his WorldTour career and this less stressful race suits. He finished the Giro really well and this could set him up for a great second part of the year. However, this race is probably a bit too hard for him.


Chris Horner has had lots of success in this race but it seems that Father Age has finally caught up with him. He is clearly no longer the rider he once was and his results this year have been far from outstanding. He claims that his lung issues are no longer bothering him but he openly admits that he doesn’t have the power to attack the best. He could very well finish in the top 10 but an overall win will be difficult.


Dylan Teuns offers BMC a second option. The BMC rider is a huge talent but he is more of a classics rider than a pure climber. The climbs here may be a bit too long. On the other hand, the level here is not that high so he could still emerge as one of the best and he should have a relatively free role.


Larry Warbasse leads IAM and gets a rare chance to prove how much he has progressed. He finished seventh in the Tour de Pologne so his form is absolutely great. He has been climbing very well since last year’s Vuelta but the race is probably a bit too hard for him.


Daniel Jaramillo, Matthew Busche and Jonathan Clarke are back-up plans for Unitedhalthcare. However, Jaramillo has had a hard time in the big American stage races and Busche hasn’t been at his best for a while. Clarke is getting better and better but it won’t be easy to win such a tough race.


Finally, Damiano Cunego deserves a mention. The Italian proved in the Giro that he can still be competitive. However, this race is more of a preparation event so we doubt that he will be among the very best riders.


***** Joe Dombrowski

**** Darwin Atapuma, Andrew Talansky

*** Peter Stetina, Lachlan Morton, Janez Brajkovic, Janier Acevedo

** Neilson Powless, Julian Arredondo, Riccardo Zoidl, Chris Horner, Dylan Teuns, Tao Geogeghan-Hart, Larry Warbasse, Damiano Cunego

* Rob Britton, Daniel Jaramillo, Jonathan Clarke, Elie Gesbert, Matthew Busche, Jonathan Fumeaux, Julien Bernard, Kevin Ledanois, Francis Mourey, Julien Loubet, Iuri Filosi, Rob Squire, Adam De Vos, Matteo Dal Cin, Chad Beyer, Joseph Chavarria



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