What Michael Matthews missed out on a day before, he atoned for a day later in Torrey, Utah.
The Orica-GreenEdge rider won a difficult, freelance sprint in stage 2 of the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah on Tuesday, and he did it a day after coming oh-so-close, when he narrowly missed to BMC Racing’s Greg Van Avermaet.
With the win in the 210-kilometer leg from Panguitch, Matthews also took the race leader’s jersey off Van Avermaet’s shoulders. The Belgian finished second behind Matthews in the sprint Tuesday, but lost the jersey, though the two riders remain on the same time.
“It’s definitely been a long process this year; I hadn’t had a win yet. But pulling off the win on the second stage of the Tour of Utah, it was really a goal for me to come into this tour with good form,” Matthews said. “Today I felt a lot better than yesterday. I’ve stayed in Brian Head two weeks before the tour started so I’ve kind of adjusted to the altitude and the time change from Europe. The team had really good confidence in me going into this tour and they played all their cards for me today and put me in perfect position. I was really stoked to win.”
Climbing the Grand Staircase
The second stage of the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah traversed some of Utah’s most spectacular red-rock country, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and the stretch of Highway 12 known as “Hogsback.” The field then climbed Boulder Mountain, a Cat. 1 ascent, toward the end of the stage. The climb proved a canvas for animation, though none of it took, and the race came down to a sprint from a thinned main field.
“The profile looked a bit harder than the stage actually was. I think everyone went into today a little bit scared, with the four categorized climbs, but I think in the end, all the sprinters here can still climb fairly well so we thought it was going to be a bit harder than it actually was,” Matthews said. “We just went into it with an open mind, and hoped for the best.”
Another two-man escape
The breakaway didn’t materialize immediately, with the elastic peloton surging, and teams trying to put heavy hitters into the day’s move. Even Garmin-Sharp’s Ryder Hesjedal found himself at the sharp end, his foot on the gas.
It proved too difficult for a big group to get away, and the peloton finally allowed two riders go clear: Martin Wesemann (MTN-Qhubeka) and Michael Hepburn (Orica). Alex Candelario was initially with the move, but the Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies rider dropped back. The break finally took flight with 173km to go in the stage, and was aided by a crash in the main field as it was growing wings.
BMC Racing sat on the front of the peloton for most of the day and allowed the gap to grow, content to control the pace for Van Avermaet. With 91km to go, the breakaway had eight minutes in hand, though Boulder Mountain loomed, and promised to carve massive time from that advantage.
RadioShack-Leopard eventually chipped in heavily to the pursuit, adding more WorldTour gas to the front of the group, and signaling the end for the breakaway men. By the third KOM, the gap had begun to plummet, to 5:20, with 39km to go. The gap fell again to 3:35, and then 2:30.
Andrés Diaz (5-Hour Energy-Kenda) threw himself into the purgatory between the escape and the nose of the peloton, pushing a big gear on the long, gradual ramp up Boulder Mountain. Hepburn sat up on the very same piece of road, leaving Wesemann all by his lonesome with Diaz in pursuit. At kilometer 100, officials pulled the team cars from the space between the splintered breakaway and the peloton, spelling the end. Diaz sat up, and the beat went on, in ever-painful fashion for Wesemann. The MTN rider was awarded the most aggressive rider award for his efforts.
“It’s the first time for us to race in America, so we just wanted to go out there and make people know that we’re actually here. I’m really proud to have [the most aggressive rider jersey],” he said.
The catch, and explosive finish
Wesemann was caught high on Boulder Mountain, but no teams pressed the issue, looking to take control of the race. The pace was high enough to discourage attacks, but with 45km left, the peloton was all together. It was too far for any true GC man to have a crack, and a day after Van Avermaet disrupted the sprinters, the race’s second stage seemed destined for a mass gallop into Torrey.
RadioShack went to the front high on the climb, stuffing the peloton into the red, though its danger man, Chris Horner, never had a true dig. Garmin came to the front as well, but only to keep an eye on things.
Andzs Flaksis (Bontrager) flew clear of the field to take the 10 KOM points on offer atop the climb. The field then settled in for a long descent into Torrey, though there were two very cruel ramps en route to the finish. Ben King (RadioShack) and Ryan Roth (Champion System) took off in pursuit of the Bontrager rider on the descent, but never made contact.
Midway through the descent, the attacks came in succession. Christian Vande Velde (Garmin) threw down and opened up an immediate gap, dragging six or so riders with him at 25km to go. The field came back together again, but UnitedHealthcare’s Lucas Euser pushed ahead, upping the speed, and Garmin was keen to tag along. And then Hesjedal attacked, blowing apart the small move that dangled just in front of the peloton, but the Canadian former Giro d’Italia winner was apparently just blowing out the cobwebs, and sat up.
Meanwhile, Flaksis, the U23 Latvian national champion in the road race and time trial, was given the cruelest of leashes, straining in front of the field, BMC and Orica watching from comfortable distance. Excitement in the bunch brought an end to the Bontrager rider’s move with 4.5km to go. Matthews rode the wave all the way to the wire.
For the second day in a row, the race lacked true organization late, drawing opportunists. David Zabriskie (Garmin-Sharp) attacked hard with 3km to go, and he took five seconds in a half kilometer, and tucked into his time trial position. He was caught just 900 meters from the line.
Bontrager then found itself in the unlikely position of running a leadout, though the sprint came down to Matthews’ craftiness and swift kick — he didn’t need much help late to win today, and BMC managed most of the race. All told, it was a bit of tactical perfection for Matthews and his Orica team. It marked his first win of the season, and second at the Tour of Utah in two years.
Thursday’s third stage from Richfield to Payson is a largely flat, 191km affair, save for one large, difficult Cat. 1, Mount Nebo, at kilometer 136. Nebo is the highest peak in the vaunted Wasatch Range, at 11,928 feet, though the riders will ascend to 9,261 feet. From there, it’s a 35km, 4,000-foot descent into Payson. While the summit is far from the finish, the steep, early ramps of the climb will provide a launch pad for any riders hoping to find themselves in contention for the race’s overall podium. A rider will almost certainly not win the Tour of Utah on Thursday, but many will lose it. The fast men like Matthews will pull the parachute early and wait for Friday’s stage 4 circuit race in Salt Lake City.
“Tomorrow will be a ‘rest’ day, if you could call it that,” Matthews said. “So we’ll back it off for tomorrow but then ramp it up again for the circuit race.”