Greg Van Avermaet rode away with a Wild-West caper on Tuesday, winning stage 1 of the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah in Cedar City. Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) attacked in the final run-in to the line to steal victory from the sprint trains in the desert opener of the six-day race.
Michael Matthews, whose Orica-GreenEdge team did most of the work to nail back the day’s long breakaway, was second in the 180-kilometer leg from Brian Head. Ty Magner (Hincapie Sportswear Development) was third, but all eyes were on the Belgian winner, whose BMC team said it would target stages in Utah, and one day 1, it delivered.
The sprint at the end of the easiest stage of the week-long race — with more than 5,748 feet of climbing, at altitude — was a rag-tag affair, as no one team was able to bend the peloton to its will and streamline the bunch toward the line. And just as Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies looked to be that team, with four riders at the front with 1km to go, Van Avermaet attacked, and immediately opened up enough of a gap to sustain for the win.
With the win, Van Avermaet pulled on the race’s first overall leader’s jersey.
The Tour of Utah continues Wednesday with the 210km second stage from Panguitch to Torrey.
Hard opening day
The Tour of Utah’s opening stage, from Brian Head to Cedar City, didn’t appear menacing on the profile, but it was a difficult day, and yet billed as the easiest in this Tour.
The peloton climbed some 17,000 feet in the thinned southern Utah air. The stage began in Brian Head, at 9,800 feet above sea level, the highest starting point of any American race this year.
From there, the field climbed into the alpine forest of the Markagunt Plateau as the race hit its highest point, at 10,300 feet.
Two climbs remained, the Cat. 4 Mammoth Creek and the Cat. 3 Bristlecone, the latter of which shot up to nearly 10,000 feet. Then, it was all downhill into Cedar City, where riders hit three fast laps around town and Southern Utah University.
Michael Torkler (Bissell) and Chris Jones (UnitedHealthcare) went clear early on. Torkler initiated the move with 178km to go, and was ultimately joined by Jones. Twenty-eight kilometers later, the duo had an advantage of four minutes, and were up to 10 minutes clear at one point.
The peloton gave the two escapees plenty of leash, but there were too many interests aligned behind them, and Jones and Torkler were mere shark bait, though they didn’t know it as they labored onward.
“It would have been nice if we had five guys but the Bissell dude [Torckler] was strong, thankfully,” said Jones. “It seemed like they started chasing, and they stopped chasing, and it got out to nine or 10 minutes. It’s always a game, you have to try and feather the gap and save everything you can for the end and we tried. I guess it was a good birthday present?”
At 46km to Cedar City, the gap had fallen to 3:05, as Orica drilled the pace at the front of the group for Matthews, who showed well in Utah last year, winning a stage.
Torkler won the mountains classification for the day, earning the jersey for his efforts.
The inevitable catch
On the long, final climb, it was clear Jones and Torkler were weary and sapped from the day’s lonely miles, their pedal strokes oblong, their shoulders rocking.
The peloton’s pace picked up tremendously on the final climb and down the descent, which saw the riders spun out in their 53×11 gears, as they hit upwards of 60 miles per hour.
BMC joined the Orica chase, pitting two ProTeams against two domestic riders who’d been in the wind all day. Orica, in particular, did the most damage to the spirits of Jones and Torkler, while BMC picked up the late charge and closed the gap 8km from the finish.
“We didn’t want to work with the Orica boys because I didn’t like this finish too much,” said Van Avermaet. “We had a plan this morning to attack in the last K; you can have a plan but sometimes it’s hard to work it out. The team was riding really good the last circuits and it worked out.”
Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Leopard) attacked across the empty space, with BMC man Michael Schär in his hip pocket, though they were quickly absorbed by a peloton that seemed destined for a mass sprint.
Robbing the trains
With one lap through Cedar City to go, the peloton resembled a runaway train, going fast but lacking organization, as teams jabbed one another throughout the bell lap. American squad 5-hour Energy-Kenda attempted to take control, but couldn’t keep the pace up for long.
Current U.S. road national champion Freddy Rodriguez (Jelly Belly-Kenda) was spotted in hiding, two teammates around him. Optum hit the 1km kite with four riders together and the most organized team, but simply wasn’t fast enough, as Van Avermaet exploded off the front, taking the stage and the leader’s jersey. By the time Matthews and Co. arrived to the final K, the Australian Orica squad was spent.
“It didn’t quite go according to plan,” said Matthews. “We used all our guys to bring the breakaway back, so we didn’t have much of a leadout for the finish. It came down to the last K and Greg slipped away with 700 meters to go, and then he was gone, we knew we couldn’t get him back. I’m happy with the team’s effort, I’m happy with my sprint, there’s not much more you could really do.”
The Belgian — winner of the Tour of Wallonie last month — celebrated after crossing the line, uncertain of the win until he found himself in the finish corral.
“I only looked back in that last corner there,” said Van Avermaet. “I just kept on pedaling, pedaling, pedaling. I didn’t put my hands up directly because I wasn’t sure … I was expecting somebody but nobody came.”
On Tuesday, the field will ride the iconic State Route 12, a road that meanders through rock terrain molded by 325 million years of geological activity. The Cat. 1 climb up Boulder Mountain, 93km into the stage, should offer a clearer picture of the men with GC ambitions, though the downhill finish will likely suppress huge time losses.
VeloNews.com editor Brian Holcombe and Velo magazine managing editor Chris Case contributed to this report.