Atapuma, Dombrowski headline Tour of Utah GC battle, host of others look to spoil the duel

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A hot wind blows across the desert landscape and does little to cool the body, as the temperature nudges triple digits. The dry heat saps the energy and the melting tarmac does a psychological number on the mind: it feels that much harder to push the pedals.

Dubbed “America’s Toughest Race,” the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah doesn’t just serve-up a ferocious climbing heavy course. The elements of summer in the western United States makes the race that much tougher and has the ability to put a rider to his knees if nutrition is not dealt with properly.

The parcours of the 2016 Tour of Utah will have the riders tackling over 16,000 metres (52,400ft) of climbing across the seven-day race, which runs from August 1-7. The racing begins in the picturesque Zion National Park, marking the occasion of the centennial birthday of the U.S. National Park Service. The race finishes with a demanding 125km (78mi) circuit around Park City.

The Tour of Utah comes the week following the Tour de France and sees not as deep a field on the WorldTour front, with only four such teams taking the start in 2016. Defending champion Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale-Drapac) and Darwin Atapum (BMC Racing) are shoulders above the rest, but behind them a stacked field of pro continental and continental riders are looking to spoil the party. Atapuma and Dombrowski have a history of racing against each other this year with both battling in the breakaway on the mountainous penultimate stage of the Giro d’Italia in May. Atapuma rode to second on that stage with Dombrowski not far behind in third.

Here are a few riders to watch in the fight for the general classification at the 2016 Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah.

Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale-Drapac)
Age: 25
Years Professional: 6 (Turned Pro: 2011)
Best Finish: 1st (2015)

Joe Dombrowski stepped-up to the plate last year in Utah and led his team to victory, despite the harsh psychological blow the team was dealt the night before with Tom Danielson being pulled from the race for testing positive in an out-of-competition test. There’s no question this year that Cannondale-Drapac is Dombrowski’s team to lead and the skinny climber is looking to the last two days when the road tilts upwards to seal his title defense. He’ll have former top-10 Tour de France finisher Andrew Talansky to guide him through the mountains.

“I had a good race here last year,” Dombrowski said. “I think like the other American guys are saying, when you’re in Europe all year it’s nice to get back to beers and burgers and Four of July barbecues, so yeah it’s good to be back.”

“On my end it’s mostly staying out of trouble for most of the week, but for the other guys they can go for it like breakaways. We even have some guys on the team who are fast finishers, so on the days it comes to a bunch sprint we can look towards them too.”

Darwin Atapuma (BMC Racing Team)
Age: 28
Years Professional: 7 (Turned Pro: 2009)
Best Finish: 1st appearance

Darwin Atapuma may prove to be Dombrowski’s biggest threat in the fight for the overall title. He finished ninth overall at the Giro d’Italia and won a stage on a mountain-top finish at the Tour de Suisse a few weeks later. The Colombian hasn’t raced since June, so as with most riders who don’t ride the Tour de France, his form is a little of an unknown. Furthermore, he may not have the full backing of BMC Racing, as the team has a couple of stagiaires in their line-up and may be chasing stage wins.

“We are heading to Utah with a young and ambitious team,” Jackson Stewart, BMC Racing director sportif, said. “Many of our riders have raced here before and with a solid week’s recon, we will be lining up with a strong and well-prepared team. We are not heading to the race with a clear leader as we have multiple options available to us so we will see how the race evolves day by day.”

Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly)
Age: 24
Years Professional: 6 (Turned Pro: 2011)
Best Finish: 7th (2010)

Lachlan Morton has been highly motivated this year, as he attempts to earn another shot at the WorldTour. He rode for Jonathan Vaughters’ program in 2013 and 2014 before stepping back down to the Continental level to join Jelly Belly in 2015. Morton won a stage and the overall title at the Tour of Gila in early May before going on to finish seventh on the summit finish on Gibraltar Road at the Amgen Tour of California. A hard crash in California forced him to abandon the race, but he bounced back to finish fourth overall at the Tour de Beauce in June. He comes into the race riding strongly, having finished second overall at the Cascade Cycling Classic and winning stage three.

“We’ve prepared really well, and I’ll try and go for a podium this week,” Morton said. “It’s always hard to know before the race, but I’ve trained harder than I’ve ever trained before and I’ve prepared better than ever before, so I hope that shows in the race. The winner will be decided on the weekend. The climb to Snowbird really decides the race.”

Neilson Powless (Axeon-Hagens Berman)
Age: 19
Years Professional: 1 (Turned Pro: 2016)
Best Finish: 1st Appearance

Neilson Powless has been a breakthrough sensation on the U.S. domestic circuit this season. He won the general classification at the Joe Martin Stage Race and finished second in the youth classification at the Tour of Gila. He became a name to watch when he attacked early on Gibraltar Road at the Amgen Tour of California and finished fifth on the stage. He finished ahead of Grand Tour contenders such as Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac) and Laurens Ten Dam (LottoNL-Jumbo). Look for Powless to possibly make the same early move on the climb to the summit finish at Snowbird Ski Resort on Saturday.

Axeon Hagens-Berman director sportif, Axel Merckx, did not name a team leader, leaving all of his riders open to the opportunity for results. This may disadvantage Powless. “We have a couple riders who can do very well,” Merckx said. “We have a strong team and this is a bit of a re-start for the second half of the season. It is also good preparation for the guys going to the Tour de l’Avenir or whatever comes next for them. Or it can be an opportunity to showcase themselves to get a pro contract out of it.”

Chris Horner (Lupus Racing Team)
Age: 44
Years Professional:
Best Finish: 2nd (2013, 2014)

Chris Horner is by far the oldest rider in the race. He captured second in the 2013 edition of the Tour of Utah before going on to win the Vuelta a Espana. The last few years have seen a drastically different Horner to the one that captured a Grand Tour. The Bend, Oregon resident has struggled to find his form this year, so it remains to be seen how he will contend on the climbs. His best result of the season is ninth overall at the Tour of Gila.

“The last two days look the best for sure,” Horner said of the route. “They’re the steepest and classic ones here at Utah. I hope the weather’s hot. The climbs are steep, the competition is good, so always the last two days.”

Damiano Cunego (Nippo-Vini Fantini)
Age: 34
Years Professional:
Best Finish: 1st appearance

Il Piccolo Principe, Damiano Cunego, is making his first trip across the pond to race in Utah. The 2004 Giro d’Italia winner has found it difficult in the past years to capture results in stage races, though he has been competing against some of the best in Europe. He finished second in the King of the Mountains competition this year and the Italian has a way of showing glimpses of great form when it counts. He has the ability to spoil the American party that is usually seen on the final podium and bring the Tour of Itah victory back to Italy with him.

“I think the Tour of Utah is not easy and it includes a lot of climbs,” Cunego said. “I like it and I think that the stages on Saturday and Sunday are the main stages and will be possible to change the general classification. I’ll try and I hope to do well to be good with my team on the stages and why not do good on the general classification too.”

Janier Acevedo (Team Jamis)
Age: 30
Years Professional: 6 (Turned Pro: 2011
Best Finish: 3rd (2013)

Janier Acevedo had a breakout 2013 season, which led to him inking a two-year deal with the WorldTour Splistream program, but a troublesome two years at the top of the sport has brought him back to Team Jamis for 2016. He showed good form in the first half of the year with second overall at the Joe Martin Stage Race and fourth overall at the Tour of Gila. His team did not ride the Amgen Tour of California.

The Colombian’s form is a bit of an unknown though, as he abandoned the Vuelta a Colombia before the last stage in July and hasn’t raced since. Look for Acevedo to hide in the peloton and stay out of trouble in the opening stages before coming to the fore in the last two days in the mountains. Even if he looses time on Snowbird, don’t count him out as he is a cagey descender. He’s moved up on the general classification on the final stage by executing a daredevil descent down Empire Pass.

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