Into the mountains: Open GC designed for chaos in final stages at Tour of Utah
What constitutes an exciting bike race? Aggressiveness? A tight GC battle with many riders in close proximity to each other going into the final stages?
Is it course dependent? Are heavy and selective features necessary like demanding climbs or long stages?
Or does it have to do with the quality and notoriety of riders within the field? Are WorldTour races always the most exciting to watch?
Many cycling fans are attracted to stardom and like to see the sport’s biggest names doing their thing. Typically, those riders come from WorldTour squads at the highest level.
Some have suggested they’re disappointed with the quality of the field at the 2017 Tour of Utah. “There aren’t enough WorldTour teams,” some have said. “This field is weaker than previous years.”
That’s partly a reality. BMC Racing is the token WorldTour team at this year’s race, compared to four last year– Trek Factory Racing, Cannondale-Drapac, IAM Cycling, and BMC.
One WorldTour team, six Pro Continental teams, and eight lower-tier Continental squads took the start in Logan on Monday.
But the lack of WorldTour names doesn’t mean there is a lack of talent. Nor does it negate exciting racing. The opposite is true. With fewer outlier performers, there’s less disparity within the field and the competition is more evenly matched. Subsequently, it’s more dramatic as a result.
“I’d say the lack of WorldTour teams has partly added to the dynamic of racing,” said Gavin Mannion of UnitedHealthcare, sitting second in the GC heading into the weekend’s final two stages. “It’s been flat-out racing for the first 50 kilometers the last two days.”
Mannion explained the dynamic at the front of the peloton over the first five stages.
“BMC is here but they’re not in yellow so they’re not controlling,” he said. “Everyone thinks they have a chance to be in the breakaway so the racing has been harder. The break hasn’t rolled until an hour in the last two days. It’s been flat-out. Guys are tired.”
Proceeding into Saturday’s queen stage, the top five on the general classification are only separated by 44 seconds; the top eight are separated by one minute. This isn’t a result of a benign course. The first five stages have been far from lacking in selective features. Two of the five stages have featured substantial categorized climbing within the final twenty kilometers and Wednesday’s Stage 3 was a 10km uphill time trial.
Why is the GC so tight, then? It’s a result of closely matched contenders coupled with vigilant racing. The two elements have come together to set up for a queen stage on Saturday that’s sure to see fireworks.
Stage 6 takes the peloton from the town of Heber Valley up the Category 1 climb of American Fork Canyon. Upon the descent of American Fork, the peloton will proceed into the HC climb of Little Cottonwood Canyon to the iconic ski resort of Snowbird. Less than 100 kilometers in distance, the stage was designed for highly aggressive racing.
Rob Britton of Rally Cycling currently heads into Saturday’s stage wearing the yellow jersey by a scant 26 seconds over second place Mannion.
The Canadian, confident in his ability to defend the jersey, not only believes in his own ability but also in the ability of the team behind him. Young Coloradan Sepp Kuss, only in his second season on the road, is Britton’s main lieutenant when the road pitches upward.
“We’ve had quite a bit of success this season GC wise. At Gila we had to defend [Evan Huffman’s yellow] and that worked out super well,” Kuss said. “So far this season everyone has really been on point at riding as a team. The team we have here is composed of guys that can climb really well, ride the flats well, and sprint well.”
Britton is clearly on form for the Tour of Utah, solidifying his GC lead with a commanding victory in the Stage 3 time trial up Big Cottonwood Canyon. He praised his team for their dynamic ability to race as a unit when it gets hard.
“We’ve been riding together for the entire season and everybody knows each other’s strengths and weaknesses and how to play off each other,” he said. “I think the harder the days get the more it suits the guys. We’re totally dialed and it’s our race to lose.”
Despite their practiced ability, the Rally men will have their work cut out for them on Saturday’s queen stage.
Save an extreme implosion, there are five other hugely talented racers in close proximity to Britton on GC.
Mannion sits 26 seconds down from Britton, though it’s not clear whether he’ll be an aggressor or a defender on Saturday, as the stoic Romanian Serghei Tvetcov (Jelly Belly-Maxxis) trails by only two seconds.
“Serghei is only two seconds behind me so that’s definitely in the back of my head,” Mannion said. “For sure it’ll depend on how I feel. I’ll follow Rob and Serghei most of the day and if I have the legs on the final climb and see an opportunity I’ll try to go for it.”
Mannion appeared calm and confident on the eve of the queen stage, and like Britton, trusting in the team supporting him.
“It’s going to be a super hard day with two super hard climbs. There’s no fluff, it’s all climbing. I think it’s going to be fairly straightforward: whoever has the legs, has the legs. It’s going to come down to complete attrition.”
Mannion said veteran Chris Jones will be his righthand man on Saturday. “He’s been doing this for awhile. If his job is to just look after me, I’m sure he’ll make it over [the climbs] and be there at the crucial moments. He can pretty much do anything. He’s really good at keeping us in position whether it’s on a flat road or over long climbs.”
Jones appeared in the break du jour on Friday’s Stage 5, however, and may be feeling the effects on Saturday.
Mannion has three other talented climbers at his disposal: Colombians Janier Acevedo and Daniel Jaramillo and Aussie Jonny Clarke will be look to be present as Mannion attempts to preserve — or improve upon — his second place.
One can’t dismiss the presence of the fourth and fifth riders on the general classification.
Brent Bookwalter’s time gap of 44 seconds will be difficult to overcome but doubtless, he and BMC Racing won’t be content to leave the 2017 Tour of Utah without a podium position. Bookwalter, the winner of the first summit finish at Snowbasin Stage 2, has the least to lose and would surely consider his race a disappointment if he can’t ascend beyond his current fifth position in the GC.
Sitting in front of Bookwalter by six seconds is young phenom Neilson Powless of Axeon Hagens Berman. Powless sits 38 seconds down from Britton but only 10 seconds down from a podium position. As is customary with Axeon Hagens Berman, expect to see attacking out of the young team on the slopes of the two major climbs of Stage 6.
Despite the gap back to Bookwalter and Powless, these two riders have the least to lose and the most to gain on Stage 6. It’s likely they’ll be more aggressive than Mannion and Tvetkov, who will be to inclined to race defensively to preserve their podium positions.
Looking at the far from determined GC, Stage 6 is sure to yield some answers as it relates to who will take home the overall win at the 2017 Tour of Utah.
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