The stage 4 Park City Downtown Criterium lived up to its billing Saturday and Utah native Jeff Louder (BMC Racing) took the win after nearly 60 minutes solo off the front of the field. The GC contenders fought it out on the 120-vertical-foot climb of Main Street for the full 75 minutes and in the end Levi Leipheimer (Mellow Johnny’s) held onto his overall lead.
Jai Crawford (Fly V Australia) jumped off the field with two laps to go and second overall Francisco Mancebo (Canyon Bicycles) caught him at the line to finish third and collect the final time bonus.
High mountain throwdown
At an elevation of 7,000 feet, the one-mile downtown course was a monster. The climb of Main Street rose 120 vertical feet per lap over a half mile. While not excruciatingly steep, the steady 10-percent grade punished riders over more than 25 laps. With the altitude and a contentious GC battle thrown in, Park City was a scene of absolute brutality Saturday evening.
Blue skies and temperatures creeping toward 90 Fahrenheit greeted riders as they warmed up on course for a half hour before the start. A number of riders shook their heads at the circuit as they rode by. Nerves were tense and the peloton jockeyed for position near the start line as announcers Michael Aisner and Todd Gogulski called forward the classification leaders.
The racing was heavy from the gun. Trek-Livestrong’s Alex Dowsett, who finished second twice this week and wore the yellow jersey for a day, rolled things out early as he rode off the front of the bunch from the start. Two laps later the Briton was back in the field and the first of the GC attacks came.
Phil Zajicek (Fly V Australia) jumped on the climb with Cesar Grajales (On the Rivet-Ion) and Pat McCarty (Rio Grande). The move sent the first pulse through the back of the bunch and the fire escape was full of riders making a quick exit.
A lap later Taylor Phinney (Trek), who is fighting V Australia’s David Tanner for the copper sprinter’s jersey, went solo, but couldn’t make a gap stick. From there, a constant stream of riders poured off the front of the race through the start/finish, which was lined four deep with fans.
Crawford gave a dig and forced a selection out of the front group, but Leipheimer and Ian Boswell (Bissell) chased him down.
“Our plan today was to take it easy for the first 20 minutes, but once we started out there it was just on … and I think the best place to be was at the front or even off the front,” said Crawford.
Added Boswell: “I saw 53 minutes to go on the clock and I didn’t think anyone was going to be able to ride the stage tomorrow. It was full gas the first 30 minutes.”
Louder showed his first cards 20 minutes into the race when he went to the front with Carter Jones (KFAN), but a reshuffle on the descent sent Davide Frattini (Team Type 1) off the sharp end. Louder and Jones led the chase, 15 seconds in front of the GC group, which Boswell pulled up the climb.
“I really wasn’t struggling that bad with those guys,” said Louder of the early move. “I thought maybe if I could go out and just ride my own rhythm, I had a chance, especially if those guys all watch each other.”
The first casualty of the overall contenders was Rory Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare-Maxxis). The Australian, who sat second in the National Racing Calendar standings coming into Utah, fell ill Friday and arrived to the start with a fever this afternoon. Sutherland popped as the GC men ratcheted up the chase.
The next to jump was eighth-overall Tim Roe (Trek), who escaped with 11th-placed Lachlan Morton (Holowesko Partners) and Megias. When the group had 15 seconds after a lap, UHC’s Tim Johnson tried to bridge, but Darren Lill (V Australia) and Leipheimer killed the break high on the climb.
After 25 minutes of nonstop attacks, Louder sensed his moment and jumped away, hoping his near-five-minute deficit on GC would be enough cushion to be left on the front. A lap later, the 2008 overall champ was still alone, with Phinney, Tanner and Alex Hagman (On the Rivet) in pursuit. Megias came across to the chase, but Louder quickly rode to a 45-second advantage.
“They were all hitting each other and kind of checking each other,” said Louder. “A couple laps before when I saw Phinney get a gap pretty easily, I said to myself, ‘Hey, these guys, I don’t think they’re going to worry about me and I don’t want to be the guy that gets caught flat-footed when somebody else gets a good gap and no one chases.’”
UnitedHealthcare entered the stage looking for a win near the end of a somewhat disappointing week. Their Dutchman Marc de Maar was the next to attack the GC group, bringing out Burke Swindlehurst (KFAN-teamgive), Frattini and Roe into the second chase group. The young Aussie Roe was a threat, however, and Leipheimer, Mancebo and the V Australia crew neutralized the move.
After Phinney cranked up the pace for the second intermediate sprint of the day, the first chase group dislodged Tanner, but was caught 10 minutes later. Taking points at both intermediate sprints in the stage, Phinney moved to within one point of Tanner’s classification lead.
As Louder hung off the front with a one-minute advantage, the elite group of about 20 riders came through with five laps to go. The Utah native thought for the first time that the win was near.
“When I had about five laps to go and I still had a minute, I knew that unless they were really saving it for something big at the end, as long as I could just hold my pace, I had a pretty good chance,” said Louder.
Zajicek put in a soft attack on the climb in the GC group. The American went on the right side of the road as thunder clapped from fans beating on placards hanging from the course barriers.
Four laps to go
The volume on Main Street tipped up 1:45 later when the lone leader came around with three circuits remaining. His upper lip curled onto his teeth, mouth open in a painful grimace, Louder stayed steady, climbing in the saddle.
The onslaught continued in the GC group back down the road. Zajicek was back from his move and Crawford put down a sharp attack as he passed through the start/finish. The young Aussie stood on his pedals and rocked his De Rosa away from the bunch. Crawford tucked tightly as he blasted down the descent of Swede Alley, completely spun out.
“It’s a funny thing,” said Crawford. “You can sit in the bunch there and you think you’re in a world of pain, but all it takes is to jump off the front. You get a little motivation and suddenly you’re riding for something.”
Three laps to go
As Crawford came to the base of the climb with a 15-second gap, Boswell led the chase group through the technical chicanes at the bottom of the course. The 19-year-old Bissell espoir, wearing the light-blue jersey of the best young rider, led the nation’s top climbers up Main Street for start of the penultimate lap.
Crawford was too strong for Boswell, though, and the gap continued to rise toward 20 seconds.
“That was one of the hardest races of my life,” said Boswell, who earlier this year won the hilly Nevada City Classic.
The GC group reshuffled again on the descent as it plummeted toward the left-hand turn onto Heber Avenue at more than 50 mph. De Maar came to the front, his GC leader and the chance for a stage win gone.
At that point, the group was hurting.
“I’m telling you, I was counting the last five laps,” said Grajales. “It took forever. I looked at Mancebo, the same thing. Everybody was just suffering. I don’t think I’ve every done a crit so hard.”
Two laps to go
As he rose through downtown, out of the saddle for the first time in nearly an hour, Louder’s thoughts turned to Terry McGinnis, executive director of the Tour of Utah, who died of cancer in 2009 at age 46.
“I really had my thoughts the whole day on Terry McGinnis,” said Louder, who trained frequently with McGinnis. “Once I was out there and I thought I had a chance, I really felt like I had him with me. It meant a lot to think of Terry today.”
Meanwhile, de Maar, McCarty and Lill drove the GC group onto the climb, but Crawford’s gap continued to rise, hitting 25 seconds by the start/finish. Leipheimer and Mancebo rode just behind the trio, tucked safely in with their main overall rivals.
When he came through for the final lap, Louder continued to look comfortable — relatively speaking — on his BMC Team Machine. Climbing again in the saddle, his shoulders swayed very little as he doled out a metered effort ahead of what was almost certainly a stage win. Louder pressed his chest low on his bars on the descent, five corners and 45 seconds from the line.
Leipheimer came to the front of the GC group and drilled the pace to close what had become a 30-second gap to Crawford. The acceleration strung the chase out and nearly popped 13th overall Max Jenkins (UnitedHealthcare) and Morton. The overall leader drove the pace up and over the ascent.
Meanwhile, Louder was arcing through the corner from 7th Street onto the climb. He zipped his red and black BMC jersey as he approached the line, raised his arms and pointed to the Team TMac bracelet on his wrist.
“It was insane. That was the biggest wall of sound — that’s the biggest crowd I’ve ever won in front of for sure,” said Louder. “It softened the hill a bit.
“I saw a chance and I took it and obviously it worked out and I’m really happy. BMC’s been waiting for a win in the U.S. for a long time and I’m must happy to have been able to do it.”
When the GC group arrived to the base of the climb, Crawford’s lead had shrunk to 15 seconds. As the bunch made the right-hand turn onto Main, Mancebo attacked and dropped the group, bridging onto Crawford’s wheel at the finish to take third behind the young climber.
Crawford, who said he dialed his effort back due to the altitude, added that he should have made his move sooner.
“Maybe I had the legs to catch Jeff if I’d gone earlier, but I waited until two to go and I was strong for most of those laps,” he said.
The chase rolled in five seconds later, strewn across a hundred meters. Leipheimer had survived the nearly constant attacks to hold onto his leader’s jersey for a second day. Also there was the full top 10 on GC, barring the ailing Sutherland.
“I don’t do a lot of criterium racing,” said Leipheimer, who carries a 1:28 lead over Mancebo into the final stage. “I wanted to just stay at the front the whole time and stay out of trouble. I decided to follow Mancebo and Darren Lill, for example. They were both aggressive and I had to jump a lot of times after them — not really my forte to jump like that. But fortunately it turned out all right.”
After a week of denying his interest in the overall, Leipheimer for the first time indicated that he is hoping to defend the lead. Still, he downplayed his chances Sunday on the queen stage.
“This course is hard, so all I have to do really is watch a couple guys and it’s possible by yourself,” he said of the criterium. “But tomorrow, of course I’m going to follow the best guys on GC, but I can’t follow everybody.”
The final stage of the 2010 Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah starts in Kimble Junction near Park City. The route is nearly identical to the penultimate stage in 2009 and climbs the Alpine Loop, Suncrest and Little Cottonwood Canyon KOM’s en route to the mountaintop finish at Snowbird Ski Resort.
The stage features 11,000 feet of climbing over 102 miles. Heat and storms are in the forecast for Sunday, and added to the slog through the Wasatch, they should make for a decisive and extremely painful day.