Utah’16 Round-Up: A Race For The Young!
Race Round-up: The Tour of Utah might not be in the same league as the Tour de France, but, unlike the French Grand Tour, the 2016 edition of the North American stage race had excitement and unpredictability on its side and the yong guys came to the fore. Bruce Hildenbrand was in Utah to catch the action, along with PEZ photog Darrell Parks, here is their take on one of the toughest races on the Pro calendar.
The 2016 Larry H Miller Tour of Utah can best be described by one word, unpredictable. Trust me that’s a good thing! It wasn’t just Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly Cycling Team) taking the overall victory on the last climb of the last stage. After yet another by-the-numbers Tour de France, cycling aficionados who saw even one of Utah’s seven stages were treated to some very exciting racing. And with all that the action taking place in one of the most breathtaking landscapes on earth this was a great race.
The 24-year old Morton was a popular winner in Utah. Fans remember his breakthrough ride on Mount Nebo three years ago when a skinny, barely 20 year old upstart soloed over the 3000 foot climb and held on in a nail biting descent to take a very well deserved stage win. But, at that point in his young career he wasn’t able to hold onto the race lead and ultimately finished fourteenth overall.
It looked like deja vu all over again when Morton, Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac) and 18-year old American phenom, Adrien Costa (Axeon Hagens Berman), escaped on stage three’s climb of Mount Nebo. Could Morton repeat his stage victory and race leadership? The Australian rider who is most well known for quitting the sport and doing cycling’s version of a walkabout before returning with renewed motivation this year proved that he was back as he attacked his two breakaway companions with a kilometer to go for the win and the race’s yellow leader’s jersey.
But, three years ago, even though Morton wasn’t quite ready to defend his leader’s jersey, he was on the WorldTour squad, Garmin, who certainly had the roster to keep their man in yellow. This go around, Morton was riding for the Jelly Belly Continental team which could make defending the race lead a big ask; a question that would be answered during the final two days, stages six and seven, when the profile of the Tour of Utah traditionally gets incredibly nasty.
Team Jelly Belly had their hands full on stage 6 as several squads, including Chris Horner’s Lupus Racing, made major, race-defining moves in anticipation of the uphill finish on Little Cottonwood Canyon. Somewhat similar in length and difficulty to the famous l’Alpe d’Huez. But, it was Cannondale-Drapac with Tour Veteran Talansky sitting second overall who laid down the most smoke. When the dust cleared, Talansky had shed himself of Morton and though the Jelly Belly rider chased valiantly, the Cannondale-Drapac rider had a 22-second lead going into the final stage.
In one of the most aggressive days on US soil in recent years, the race literally blew apart on the final stage, a 78-mile loop starting and finishing in Park City, which, BTW, is a great town to host a bike race! And, unlike the Tour where it seems like the big attacks only happen in the final kilometers, Lachlan Morton was off the front and charging as the race headed up the race’s final climb the brutal Empire Pass an 8-mile, 3200′ ascent with sections in the 20% range! He only needed 22 seconds to surpass Talansky; going this early on such a grueling climb meant that either Morton was feeling good, or he was a bit light headed in Utah’s high mountain air.
Up the climb, Morton looked focused, pedaling a slightly bigger gear as Darwin Atapuma (BMC) and Adrien Costa formed the first chase group a minute back. Andrew Talansky, teammate and last year’s overall champion Joe Dombrowski and the plucky Rally Cycling rider Rob Britton made up the second chase group about two minutes back.
Morton kept the rubber side down on the tricky descent back into Park City to take the biggest win of his career and the biggest win for the Jelly Belly Cycling Team. And, Adrien Costa, twice a silver medalist at the World Championships in the Junior Men’s Time Trial gained enough time to take second place overall, clearly a breakout ride for him as well. To see the Continental teams like Jelly Belly and Axeon Hagens Berman taking it to the big WorldTour squads was refreshing and provided constant drama. The underdogs are always big fan favorites!
Another factor leading to the unpredictability of the race, was the fight for the wins on the sprint stages. It seemed like the form book went out the window every day. A team would put their whole squad on the front only to see their efforts neutralized by a small group of very motivated riders. And, even when a bunch kick was inevitable, the final 300 meters resembled a traffic jam in downtown Rome as lead-out trains were derailed more quickly than an Amtrak express.
It appears that in the twelve years of the Larry H Miller Tour of Utah, the organizers have found a way to meld the state’s incredible natural beauty with competitive, exciting racing. They have found a good mix of World Tour, Pro Continental, and Continental teams such that everyone has an opportunity to shine. The best racers in American (and beyond!) can showcase their talents on national TV and in front of very receptive fans. This was a feel good race on so many levels. Just ask Lachlan Morton.