With a solo attack on the relentlessly steep Empire Pass, Levi Leipheimer won the final stage of the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. Leipheimer discovered the massive final climb of the race while out training, and encouraged the race organizers to include it this year’s edition of the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. Rabobank’s Steven Kruijswijk won the sprint for second ahead of Leopold Koenig of NetApp.
“I was suffering,” said Leipheimer after the stage. “I saw five kilometers to go [on the climb], and I thought oh my God, what have I done to myself. Suffering like that is a beautiful thing. It’s why we race our bikes. It’s why I do this.”
Thanks to some hard chasing by the BMC Racing Team, Johann Tschopp successfully defended his race lead. The Swiss climber won the uphill finish on Snowbird and secured the race lead on Saturday. Despite the fearsome attack from Leipheimer on the final climb of the race, Tschopp never panicked. His reward is the yellow jersey of overall winner, the first of his career.
The podium placings reshuffled as Christian Vande Velde suffered badly on Empire Pass and lost three minutes on the final day of racing. After two solid days in the mountains, former U.S. national champion Matthew Busche of RadioShack-Nissan finished second overall. The 24-year-old Czech rider Leopold Koenig of NetApp took third.
The early breakaway escaped after less than ten kilometers of racing. It began as a massive fourteen-rider group, but three riders found the pace too high and soon went back to the main field. The break included mountains rivals Ben Jacques-Maynes of Team Bissell and Timothy Duggan of Liquigas-Cannondale, and points leader Michael Matthews of Rabobank. None of the riders in the break posed a threat to race leader Johann Tschopp, and BMC loosened the leash. The gap held around three minutes for much of the day.
The first drama came on Wolf Creek, a straight, exposed grinder of a climb. Jacques-Maynes started the day with a seven-point lead over Duggan in the mountains classification. To keep his jersey, Jacques-Maynes needed to keep close watch on Duggan. As the climb began, Colombian Jorge Castiblanco of EPM-UNE scampered up the road ahead of the break. At the summit of Wolf Creek, Castiblanco took the maximum points, followed by Matthews. In the final meters, Jacques-Maynes jumped free of the break and secured his jersey.
Before the stage, Jacques-Maynes said that his team planned to go all-out to get him in the early break to defend his mountains jersey. “You sit around all year losing races,” he said. “When you have a chance to win, you don’t let it get away.” Jacques-Maynes also had teammate Carter Jones in the break with him.
Though the break split over Wolf Creek, it reformed on the descent. BMC steadily chipped away at their advantage, but for the most part, the race sat in suspense as the kilometers counted down to the final climb of the race. With 25 kilometers to go, the gap to the break held at 2:00, and the battle for Empire Pass began.
Empire Pass runs 3000 feet from bottom to top. Near the top, the gradients hit 15% and stay there. To add to the difficulty, the road surface is uneven rock pressed with tar. Before the start, Joe Dombrowski said that Bontrager-Livestrong was riding mountain bike cassettes to cope with the extreme gradients of the final climb of this year’s race.
As the road tilted up, the break began to shatter. Predictably, Castiblanco opened the hostilities. Then, Duggan headed up the road in search of stage victory. Sutherland showed again that he brought good form to this race, and steadily reeled in Duggan. With just under seven kilometers of climbing to go, Sutherland made the catch to Duggan. Sutherland looked to have the better gear choice than Duggan, and soon Sutherland left the U.S. national champion behind.
But now the center of the action had shifted. Levi Leipheimer said earlier this week that he hoped for a stage victory on one of the weekend’s mountain stages. On Empire Pass, he turned talk into action and attacked from the main field with 20 kilometers left to race. Only around fifteen riders remained in the remnants of the main field where Bookwalter rode determinedly in defense of Tschopp’s race lead. Dombrowski and Stetina also contributed to the effort to keep the flying Leipheimer from riding away with the bike race.
Leipheimer motored up the climb, and rode over the top of Duggan. Sutherland optimistically tried to followed Leipheimer, but the tall Australian blew to bits from the effort of trying to grab the wheel of Leipheimer. In the main field, meanwhile, Vande Velde dropped off out the back. Ian Boswell of Bontrager-Livestrong did his best yo-yo impression, but made it to the summit with the small group of favorites.
Over the top of Empire Pass, Leipheimer held a minute advantage over Tschopp and the other top riders in the general classification. Between the two groups, Lucas Euser of Spidertech rode alone in no man’s land. Nine riders crossed the summit together behind Leipheimer and Euser. The group included Busche, Horner, Koenig, Kruijswijk, Dombrowski, Boswell, Danielson, Sutherland, and race leader Tschopp.
Leipheimer plunged down the serpentine descent. After the stage, he said he had ridden both the climb and descent more than twenty times. Plainly, this was a stage he had planned to try to win from the start. The practice paid off. Leipheimer proved untouchable and he rode up Park City’s Main Street alone to take the stage victory.
Behind Leipheimer, the chase group came to the line together, and Kruijswijk won the uphill sprint for second. Koenig of NetApp finished third, followed by race leader Tschopp.
Thanks to his consistent riding on the final day, Tschopp retained the race lead. Busche finished second overall, and Koenig took the third step on the final podium. After three days in the break, Jacques-Maynes won the mountains classification, and Matthews won the points jersey.
Joe Dombrowski of Bontrager-Livestrong, meanwhile, finished fourth overall and won the Best Young Rider’s jersey. Bontrager-Livestrong placed both Dombrowski and Boswell in the top five overall, a successful week for the U23 team.