Fans fought for the perfect view. Cowbells rang raucously, spectators screamed into megaphones, making sure the sixth and final stage of the 2012 Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah would be remembered for its liveliness. Enthusiasts snapped countless photos with their smartphones and children decorated Lower Main Street with chalk art.For one day, Park City’s Main Street was the focal point of the cycling world.
“I don’t know how you can say it’s not enjoyable,” said Rory Sutherland, a New Zealander riding for the UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team, who won the Tour’s first stage on Aug. 7 and won the Most Aggressive Rider jersey Sunday. “It’s obviously a very painful experience, but at the same time, I don’t think there was a rider out there today who didn’t enjoy parts of the climb and seeing the people of Utah come out and support us.”
Pain is an understatement. Stage 6 of this year’s Tour of Utah punished without compromise.
For the first time ever, the Tour of Utah — dubbed America’s toughest stage race — finished in Park City and the 76.73-mile ride did not disappoint. The peloton set out from Lower Main Street around noon Sunday and trekked to the east side of Summit County, past Oakley and Kamas and into the Wolf Creek Pass area. From there, the riders set out for Wasatch County where they rode through Heber City, into Midway and eventually faced the demoralizing climb up Empire Pass.
A day after nabbing the yellow jersey from Christian Vande Velde of team Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda, Swiss rider Johann Tschopp made sure he wouldn’t relinquish it on the Tour’s biggest stage. The BMC Racing Team rider kept the leader’s jersey on the final day, securing his 2012 Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah victory, finishing first overall in the individual general classification race in front of a roaring crowd on Lower Main Street. Matthew Busche of Team Radioshack-Nissan Trek finished second, while Leopold Koenig of Team NetApp finished third.
“We have a lot of similar routes in Europe as here in Utah,” said a smiling Tschopp through an interpreter. “There have been a lot here that are quite large.
“My strategy was to perform at my maximum. It was quite difficult from time to time, but I did what I needed to do — and from time to time, it was risky.”
Having already trekked close to 470 miles in Northern Utah’s grueling mountainous terrain, the riders were presented with a challenge that tested some riders to their very core. Cyclists huffed and puffed as they crossed the finish line. Some just plopped their bodies on their handlebars.
The final eight miles took no prisoners. However, two-time defending Tour of Utah champion Levi Leipheimer, a graduate of the Rowland Hall Academy in Salt Lake City, made sure he wouldn’t fall victim to the altitude gains. After all, Leipheimer, who recently competed in the 2012 Tour de France, spends much of his summer training along the Wasatch Back and actually suggested the Empire Pass climb to Tour of Utah organizers.
The 38-year-old veteran made a crucial push past the peloton on the way up Empire Pass and eventually took a staggering lead. Leipheimer won the final stage as he shot down Deer Valley Drive and made one final, yet brief climb up Lower Main Street as the crowd shouted his name.
“I definitely felt the pressure today, having been the one who pushed for that climb, and in a way discovered it,” he said, shaking his head. “They actually put it in and I didn’t think they would. It turned out to be a good thing.”
With the way he performed on the Tour of Utah’s final day, Leipheimer was asked if he wished the climb would have been longer.
“No, no,” he said. “I was suffering — I was suffering a lot. When I saw ’5K to go,’ I thought, ‘Oh my God, what did I do to myself?’ It’s horrible to be out there pushing yourself that hard and under the pressure of ‘I’ve got the stage win in my hands.’ At the same time, that’s why I think we all race our bikes, because suffering like that is actually a beautiful thing. It’s not pretty. I felt ugly on the bike, but I won the stage. I’ve ridden that exact course about 20 times, and every time I come over the top of that hill, I’ve come down that exact same downhill and I imagined myself in that scenario. That’s really why I do this.”
In total, the riders who finished all six stages rode 545 miles and climbed close to 38,500 feet in the six-day event. They touched cities such as Ogden, Lehi and Midway and participated in the team trial at the Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele.
With the Tour of Utah continuing to grow in stature — both nationally and internationally — the story of this year’s stage race will be the taxing 22-percent climbs presented to the already-gassed riders on event’s final day.
“I think it’s a testament to how much the Tour of Utah has grown, and the level of competition is so high, if you make a mistake or two, like we did in the team time trial, then your race is over,” Leipheimer said. “I never figured I would be able to win. I was hoping to get a stage win out of these last couple days, and I was very happy to be able to do that.”