Sport has always been intertwined with our state’s history. From recreational pursuits like skiing, climbing, and paddling, to the 2002 Winter Olympic venues, Utah’s dynamic geography and stunning beauty has made it the likely choice for sport-centric people worldwide. However, until recently, Utah’s place in professional cycling has been minimal. That all changed in 2004 with the inaugural Tour of Utah, a three day cycling stage race showcasing some of the most talented local riders. The first few years of the event were marked with uncertainty, but as time went on, the Tour of Utah began to attract more and more sponsors, crowds, and notoriety. As the tour gained momentum, professional riders from around the nation, and the globe, began to realize this was not amateur hour.
While the Tour grew, so did the list of teams that wanted a piece of the action. Elite riders from teams like Healthnet, Toyota-United, and TIAA-CREF joined in on the fun, and by 2009, the Tour of Utah was reaching the pinnacle of western races. The event was even added to USA Cycling’s National Racing Calendar, further adding to its prestige. The Tour of Utah has even been dubbed “The World’s Toughest Stage Race” by certain circles. As 2010’s race shapes up for this August, teams from all corners will be honing their skills and lining out their list of racers to leave their mark on cycling history.
The evolution of the Tour is due in part to the increased popularity, but its success can also be attributed to the architects wanting to create a race that would challenge the sport’s finest athletes. This year’s event will be comprised of five distinct stages that span from Ogden to Provo. Tuesday August 17th will also include a prologue stage that is essentially a three-mile time trial near the state capitol.
Stage one promises to test the fortitude of the riders and determine if they really have what it takes to compete in this event. A formidable eighty-five mile ride from Ogden Canyon to Research Park in Salt Lake City will challenge every rider’s endurance and mental strength. The route will follow the I-84 corridor as it snakes its way through beautiful tree-lined canyons on its way to East Canyon Reservoir. Within the first twenty-five miles, the riders will encounter a steady climb topping out at 6,400 feet; a nearly 2,300’ vertical gain from the start. Next, they have a harrowing, high-speed descent on their way to the second checkpoint. Then, the riders will spend the next thirty miles climbing to the stage’s highest elevation of 7,300 feet. After that, it is a mere fifteen miles to the highly anticipated finish at the University of Utah’s Research Park. At the finish, riders can expect a chaotic mass of screaming friends and fans ringing cowbells and waving signs. Once this stage is complete, the competitors will enjoy a relaxing evening of recuperation as they prepare for the coming days of unrelenting terrain and physical anguish.
The second day will begin at Thanksgiving Point near Orem and finish at the summit of Mt. Nebo. This stage will be relatively flat for the first sixty miles or so, and then it’s an all out crank-fest for the next twenty. The final portion of the stage will be the most strenuous climbing the riders have encountered thus far, encompassing a 4,300 vertical foot battle to the top of Mt. Nebo.
Day three will take the riders to the Miller Motorsports Park in Toole for an individual time trial. Each racer will compete against the clock as they strive to shave seconds off their ten-mile course record. Riders will make a loop around the east and west tracks as they encounter long straight-aways and tight corners. This stage pits the racers against their inner thoughts as they attempt to grab a respectable time and set themselves up for the final two days.
Perhaps the most anticipated spectator stage; day four will involve a ninety-minute criterium in downtown Park City. “This year’s crit is highly anticipated and the athletes seem excited about racing through the renowned streets of PC,” said tour president Steve Miller. As the crowds gather, racers will tackle a 1.6-mile loop down Historic Main Street, battling hairpin turns that sometimes lead to massive pile-ups. Spectators can enjoy the excitement from any number of points along the course and stop in at a local restaurant or pub when they need to refuel. Unfortunately, the competitors will have to take a rain check on that pint of Evolution at Wasatch Brew Pub. By the time the race is over, the cyclists will have completed almost forty miles and climbed over 4,200 vertical feet.
The fifth and final day, christened “The Queen Stage”, will start in Park City and end at Snowbird Mountain Resort in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Along the hundred-mile journey, the racers will encounter lush streamside foliage and cramp inducing hill climbs. A few pit stops along the way will ensure the riders have enough fuel to burn as they make their way to the base of Little Cottonwood. From there it’s a strenuous seven-mile ascent, which includes over 4,000 vertical feet of climbing. The final mile, the cyclists will put every ounce of energy into making a strong finish and doing their teams justice. When it is all said and done, stage five will have lasted 102.5 agonizing miles and climbed nearly 11,000 feet. What a day.
So you may ask yourself- what kind of masochist would subject themselves to this kind of physical punishment and mental torture? I caught up with a few racers for an interview to see just how tough you really have to be to compete in this race.
Brad White is a former triathlete who trained in the mountains of Colorado. He describes his experiences there as “a great place to get plugged into the racing scene.” By age twenty-four, Brad had decided he wanted to focus more on the cycling aspects of competition and said to hell with running and swimming. After a few years of intense training and competition, Brad moved into the world of professional road racing. Although he broke into the pros largely on his own, Mike Carter, the current director of Team Type 1 mentored him through the beginning. The encouragement and technical advice Carter imparted on White helped him develop a positive attitude which led to increasing success in professional racing. Brad also worked alongside Darren Lill, the 2009 Tour of Utah runner-up.
For the 2010 race, Brad will be a part of the United HealthCare Team presented by Maxxis. Although, the name has changed since he began racing with them in 2008, the structure of the team has remained relatively intact. The team has a roster of fifteen cyclists, eight of which will be racing in the Tour. Talking with White revealed the dynamic selection of racers that will be chosen to participate in the race. “You really want the best racers for each stage to go, that’s what helps the team the most. Certain athletes are better suited for stages like the time-trial, whereas others are better climbers or sprinters,” said White. Although each of the eight riders competes in every stage, there are certain aspects that cater to their individual strengths. Brad for instance, is a breakaway rider. He will often get out, or break, from the peloton, which takes some pressure off the team. It gives the guys who are going for the overall win a chance to relax. “It’s even a little bit of a bluff card sometimes,” adds White. Sustaining a lead after a breakaway also gives Brad the opportunity to win a stage, as he did in 2008. He also took the Sprinter’s Jersey that same year. In this year’s race, Brad will focus more on the time-trial stage. The training and team bonding this year are key components Brad feels are necessary to a competitive finish in 2010. Starting with a team session in Tucson, Arizona, the racers spend ten days working together and learning each other’s strengths. This is also a time to meet with sponsors and work on team tactics.
An integral part of being a professional racer is continued conditioning in the off-season. Once the racing season ends in September, Brad spends a bit of time out of the saddle. He enjoys cross training with sports like hiking and downhill skiing. “This time away is crucial to longevity and sanity,” noted Brad. By December though, it’s back to the gym lifting up to twice a week and spending twenty-five to thirty hours a week on the bike. It’s also a time rebuild muscle and strengthen bones by laying down a solid base for the upcoming competitions. As February approaches, Brad backs off his strenuous regimen and slims back to eighteen to twenty hours a week and ceases lifting. Depending on his racing schedule, cyclists like Brad may incorporate some team rides to keep up the group flow.
With the lead up to the Tour of Utah, Brad will race in a variety of other events around the country. One of his favorites is the Tour of the Gila. It’s hosted in Silver City, New Mexico and involves a good bit of climbing. “I had my best finish there in 2007, where I won as a Cat two,” recalls White. Participating in other races like the Cascade Cycling Classic and the Nature Valley Grand Prix gives Brad an array of competitive experience that will help him when he comes to Utah. Not discounting physical ability, Brad emphasizes the importance of mental conditioning that goes into professional racing. “Being able to maintain positive thoughts and setting goals helps me when I race,” says White. It’s clear that competitors need individual processes that help them overcome the stress brought on by fierce competition and continuous travel. Brad’s sensible demeanor off the course is evident when speaking with him, and I can only imagine the thoughts that fly through his head as he suffers on the last few miles of any race. As the 2010 racing season comes into full swing, Brad seems confident in his personal strengths and those of his teammates.
After talking with Brad, it’s apparent that there are a variety of ways riders get prepared for the Tour of Utah. However, it’s also important to realize that the day-to-day routine of racers during an event can have an impact on how a rider takes on the individual stages. For a closer look, I spoke with Burke Swindlehurst, a long time professional cyclist and member of the Tour of Utah Board of Directors. Burke’s position as the Technical Advisor of the tour gives him unique insight into how the event is laid out and what challenges racers will face when they come to Utah. “It’s essential that we design a race course that is representative of our state’s terrain,” said Burke. His focus on the aesthetic aspects of the event is critical to maximizing the appeal of the Tour, as well as integrating spectator enjoyment at each stage. Being an athlete also gives Burke the advantage of knowing how a racer approaches an event. “The development of stages hinges on the cyclists ability to recover and prepare for the next section. The event starts with nearly 150 riders, and over each stage, the field is cut down little by little. The Mt. Nebo stage for instance, has a time limit, and competitors finishing outside the limit will be eliminated from the entire event. That’s what distinguishes us from other races, the course is demanding, the competition is demanding, and the elements are demanding,” added Burke. The tour itself is certainly the most mountainous race in the nation, and by finding out which riders deserve to make the cut, the course designers are able to ensure that the event continues to attract top-shelf riders.
As Swindlehurst gets ready for the 2010 race, he recounts his finish from last year. “I came devastatingly close to winning the final stage last year. Unfortunately, I let my focus drift from the racer who posed the biggest threat and I ended up coming in second.” Going into this year’s tour, Burke is trying a new method and going it alone. He won’t be part of team and will rely on the support of his friends and family to get him through the race. Burke admits that without a team he doesn’t stand much of a chance of winning the overall title, but he does feel that he can win at least one individual stage, particularly the Snowbird section. In his quest for redemption, Swindlehurst has gained some private sponsorship and altered his plan for attacking the race. Although his training regimen will remain unchanged, his tactical perspective will focus on knowing the competition and making the right moves at precisely the right time. “I’m really excited at the challenges that going solo pose and I’ll have to tackle those as they come,” said Burke. The preparation he undertakes for each stage involves studying the course and knowing what strategy to use and when. Getting ready for the Mt. Nebo hill climb involves steady pacing and deciding when to break away, whereas the criterium demands that he burst out the gate and maintain position. Growing up riding the roads of Utah has also given Burke a competitive advantage when it comes to the longer stages, and his awareness is heightened on when to make a move that could mean the difference between first and second. He acknowledges that being a local puts an “inordinate amount of self-imposed pressure” on him and that the strong emotional tie to racing at home can sometimes exacerbate small problems. Alas, Burke does think that racing alone will give him more time to reflect on the race and actually enjoy himself. He wants to focus on the fun and believes that results will follow. In addition to relaxing and taking pleasure in the tour, he’ll take the time to talk with other racers and determine what aspects worked well and modify the ones that did not. “Receiving feedback from athletes is not only insightful, its part of my job,” noted Burke. By engaging other riders in a productive atmosphere, Burke can ensure that the Tour of Utah will attract world-class racers for years to come.
While professional competitors like Brad and Burke gear up for the Tour of Utah, amateur riders from around the state can test their might in The Ultimate Challenge. This all-comers race is targeted at riders who want to experiment with their own physical and mental strengths on the same Stage Five course the pros will endure. Starting at Kimball Junction and ending at Snowbird, racers will see if they have the stamina to challenge one of the toughest courses in all of stage racing. There will also be an amateur downtown criterium in Park City the same day as the professional race. All the proceeds from these races will go to support the Tour of Utah and it’s a great way to involve the local riders and hype up the event.
For more information regarding the Tour of Utah or The Ultimate Challenge, visit www.tourofutah.com.