The Larry H. Miller speeds toward its mountainous finale this weekend with two back-to-back climbing stages. Saturday’s stage finishes at 8000 feet above sea level at the Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort. Though on Sunday the race finishes with a descent to the finish, the course includes Empire Pass which climbs more than 3000 feet. Only a true climber will love the looks of those two stage profiles.
The real general classification battle begins on Saturday. “Everything’s window-dressing until tomorrow,” said Team Bissell’s Chris Baldwin before the stage on Friday before the long, flat stage. Going into the mountains, Garmin-Sharp holds the top three positions in the general classification with Christian Vande Velde in the yellow jersey of race leader, Tom Danielson in second, and Dave Zabriskie in third. Garmin-Sharp also has young climber Peter Stetina is fourth at thirty seconds. Taken together, those four riders present a formidable barricade to any rider hoping to take home the yellow jersey on Sunday.
Danielson is especially motivated to score a good result in Utah after a first-week crash took him out of the Tour de France. “It was a tough period for me,” he said on Friday. “It was hard to have trained so hard for the Tour and really have worked from November for it, and then have it all over in a second.” Danielson came away from that crash with a live for today attitude that could well translate into a aggressive racing. “It definitely put cycling in perspective,” he said. “You to go take what you can get every day, because you never know what’s around the corner.”
By now, Danielson has had several weeks to recover from the crash that left him battered in body and mind. He is happily anticipating the weekend’s climbing. “I feel really good,” he said. “I’m just really excited to get out there and do something good.” He has never ridden Sunday’s stage, but he said it “sounds awesome.” Climbers, they are a crazy breed.
The heat and the altitude are likely to factor in a big way on both Saturday and Sunday. Saturday’s finishing climb to Snowbird runs over exposed terrain. The heat radiates off the black pavement, and the riders are exposed to the worst of the sun’s brutal blaze. “Hydration and staying cool is the huge key to the stage,” said Baldwin. For Rabobank rider Wilco Kelderman, who holds the Best Young Rider jersey, the heat has presented a challenge, but he said on Friday that “it’s getting better.”
Chris Horner, meanwhile, is hoping it gets better for him quickly. “The legs aren’t that good, they’re not that good at the moment,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s the altitude or the heat, there’s a lot of different things.” Horner said he was tired from the Tour, and he suffered a concussion in a crash at the Olympics that he thinks may still be affecting him. “I was sorta hoping that the longer we extend out those harder days, the more I can adapt to the altitude and the heat and it won’t have so much effect on me.”
Still, Horner is not optimistic about his chances on Saturday. “Based on yesterday’s form, I’m not doing anything tomorrow!” He told his teammates Matthew Busche and George Bennett to play their own cards, and Horner laughed a bit enviously at the happy exuberance of his young teammates. “So, of course, young George was like, sweet! We’re suffering like dogs, so they’re like sweet!”
The tactical game should be pretty straightforward on these mountain stages. As Horner put it, “it’s just get up the climb and see who’s the strongest.” Baldwin expects that Garmin-Sharp will ride a hard tempo throughout the day. “I think Garmin’s style is to ride to make sure everyone’s uncomfortable the whole time,” said Baldwin. “It makes it hard for anyone to even go get water bottles, they’re going so fast.” After Thursday’s stage, Garmin-Sharp’s Peter Stetina said on Twitter that it was going so fast, he did not want to go back for a water bottle, so he sprayed drink mix on his overheating feet.
So far this week, wind has kept the field together on the climbs during the previous stages. Though riders have tried to escape, the wind has pushed them right back into the field. “Right now, the headwind’s so strong that anytime anyone goes, they just get out there and blow,” explained Horner. “I don’t even bother trying. I look at them going, and I’m looking down at the power meter, and I’m like, where are they going to go? I’m going 380 [watts] and I’m max’d out. What, they’re going to do 480 at altitude? I don’t know what part of their brain thought this is going to work.” If the wind dies down on these final climbing stages, the attacks might well stay out there and decide the race.
The young riders at Bontrager-Livestrong expect to make very few tactical decisions on the road. “Being in a race like this on our team, we’re in a position where we just have to follow and try to be there at the end,” said Joe Dombrowski, who recently won the Baby Giro U23 race in Italy with a long bomb attack on the Passo di Gavia. Dombrowski sits 1:08 behind Vande Velde in the general classification.
Dombrowski’s teammate Ian Boswell is optimistic about their chances. “We have a good team here, and between Joe and I, the next two days look real well. Boswell got frisky during the first stage and attacked on the final climb of the day. “I just get a bit antsy, which is kind of a rookie mistake,” he confessed. “Maybe it hasn’t affected me so far, but maybe later in the week, I might pay for that.” Bontrager-Livestrong came to Utah a couple weeks early for a training camp, and by now, they have seen the principal climbs of the upcoming stages. “We’ll just play it by ear,” concluded Dombrowski.
One potential wildcard on these stages is last year’s winner Levi Leipheimer, who sits well out of the general classification. His Omega Pharma-Quick-Step team struggled in the wind at the team time trial on Wednesday, and he is currently around four minutes behind Vande Velde. Leipheimer will be stage-hunting when the race hits the mountains this weekend and could be the kryptonite that blows up the race. “I feel good,” said Leipheimer on Friday. “I’m just waiting for the weekend.”
Saturday’s stage rolls out from Newpark Town Center and runs 162.8 kilometers to finish at altitude at the Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort. The first 15 kilometers run over bumping terrain, and the first Ski Utah KOM summits at kilometer 19. There’s a bit of an intermission after that first climb in Jordanelle.
The real business of the stage begins after around 85 kilometers of racing with the Alpine Loop climb. The road twists and turns under heavy tree cover. The descent from Alpine Loop is a tricky one with several sharp corners. Around 20 kilometers divide the summit of Alpine Loop from the climb to Sun Crest. “The two climbs before Snowbird are really hard,” said Danielson. “You’re really tired for the final climb.”
The final climb to Snowbird runs over exposed, open highway. Team Exergy pro rider Alison Tetrick rode Saturday’s final climb to Snowbird on Friday and described it as unrelenting. The road is wide and there’s no tree cover. In the final kilometers, the gradient tilts up to around 10%. “You climb to altitude and the final five kilometers are hard, because of the altitude,” said 2009 winner Francisco Mancebo of Competitive Cyclist. “The last kilometer is the hardest.” Like all the riders well-placed in the general classification, Mancebo is hoping for a good day on Saturday.
“Heat, length, gradient,” said two-time race winner Leipheimer. It all adds up to a difficult day of racing at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah.