The Tour of Utah: A Most Excellent Adventure
Find your spot at the host venues to see some of the world's best pro-cyclists in action.
Don’t throw up.
That is what kept going through my mind as we weaved in and out of traffic, scores of cars and bicycles straddling both sides of the double-yellow line rounding corners at speeds well above the posted limit on Scenic Byway 12 in Southern Utah. This is one of the most remote and stunning sections of road in the United States, and I deliberately kept my eyes staring out over the hood of the Subaru into the horizon to make sure my breakfast stayed where it belonged.
This scene wasn’t some reckless joy ride hoping to make its way to YouTube. It was just another day at The Tour of Utah, and by the end, my companions were actually apologizing that it was a pretty uneventful one.
This is the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, the multi-day professional cycling race dubbed, “America’s Toughest Stage Race." How I ended up in the front passenger seat of a team car for Axeon Hagens Berman (pronounced “Action”) for Stage 2 a few years ago is the story of what often happens when you live in or visit Utah. When people suggest, ask or badger you to do something that sounds a bit crazy, through squinted eyes and gritted teeth, you often find yourself saying, “Sure.” Then, you have the ride of your life.
Another Tour of Utah is approaching and the memories of my experience are still fresh.
Utah is not Disneyland and can be a bit overwhelming and daunting at first. While both are full of wonder, in Utah, there are few fixed routes, nothing is controlled by a man behind the curtain, and each person has a unique experience on each ride. This also presents the existential problem of living and playing here. Because there are few limits, you frequently see people pushing boundaries, not to defy death but to embrace life. So, whether you’re a first-time visitor or a weekend warrior, this can be incredibly intimidating.
People don’t just hike here — Grandmothers rappel into water-filled slot canyons! (Read: Walking off the Ledge.) Utah is the playground for mountain bikers, ultra-marathoners, backcountry skiers, ice climbers, BASE jumpers, super-sonic racecar drivers and an inordinate number of Olympic and professional athletes. In any given issue of Outside Magazine, some Utah attraction is typically in the Top 10 list of “Best,” “Top,” “Most,” of anything! So, while it attracts some exceptionally talented and seemingly fearless people, it is also a one of the best places to try something new and to explore something from a different vantage point with people who are, generally, quite eager to introduce you and take you along for a ride.
And that’s why I said, “Sure, I’d love to.”
No, I’m not a professional cyclist. I don’t even own a road bike. I do love mountain biking, however, and can appreciate the pain of a 12 percent climb at 8,000 feet especially because I’m not a pro. It sucks. Literally. It removes the air, energy and will to live right out of you. I cannot imagine choosing to do it professionally for days and months and years on end in all types of weather all over the world, but I’m awed by those that do.
I am, however, a cycling fan who came to it over a decade ago while living in Texas cheering on its native son, Lance Armstrong, during the 2002 Tour de France in my air-conditioned family room. What else is there to do in Houston in July? There was so much excitement and drama (for better or worse) over the 21-stage race. The spectators along each route — the most-numerous and most-colorful of any sporting event — were as much fun to watch as the riders. I was hooked.
Pro-Cycling up Close
Professional cycling, whether in France or Utah, is like viewing The Travel Channel and ESPN simultaneously. A tour takes place over days and weeks showcasing some of the most stunning landscapes on Earth. It is like watching a half-dozen events at once and, at any given time, it is either an individual or team sport.
Competitors are vying for the lowest times, the most points … and the largest array of short-sleeve shirts: the yellow jersey (also called General Classification, GC or maillot jaune for the overall lowest time), green jersey (top sprinter points), polka dot/Ski Utah logo jersey (“King of the Mountains” points or KOM), white jersey (lowest time for the best young rider, typically under 25 years old), red jersey (subjectively awarded to the most aggressive rider, which may seem a difficult choice in a race filled with guys screaming downhill on winding two-lane roads at speeds topping 50mph) and the stage winner jersey and best team jersey (lowest collective team time). While there are slight variations depending on local traditions or sponsors, these jerseys are the trophies the riders are reaching for.
Unable to sit still with so much going on during each race, I found myself planning food and wine around each stage — wines, cheeses, even soufflés from the places they were traveling. By watching Le Tour, The Tour of Utah and others, I learned a lot over the years about tactics and terroir, chainrings and cuisine. Friends and family thought I was mad but, surprisingly, didn’t decline any invitations to watch the race with me when corks were popping.
Remember what I said about being awed and intimidated by some really exceptional people around here?
Through a series of serendipitous last-minute events, I ended up at the pre-race team meeting and introduced to Axel Merckx, owner and director of Axeon, a UCI Continental cycling team based in the U.S. created to develop young professional riders. Yes, THAT Axel Merckx, former Belgian National Champion, Giro d’Italia stage winner, Olympic Road Race medalist and son of five-time Tour de France legend, Eddie Merckx. If that means nothing to you, it’s like going to the Sundance Film Festival and “hanging with Bob” [Redford]. I then met my driver for the day, Team Manager Jeff Louder who, off a bike and with so much going on around me, I didn’t even recognize as the former professional cyclist from Salt Lake City and past winner of The Tour of Utah (as well as numerous stage wins and podium finishes across the world).
A True Spectator Sport
There is a lot about The Tour of Utah and Axeon, in particular, that reminds me of Sundance, one of the other big spectator events here in Utah. The start and finish lines at each of The Tour’s six-plus stages are filled with fans of all ages getting selfies and autographs. Along the roads of each route, people will wait all day to watch for those few seconds their peloton favorites climb or sprint by. Some fans, occasionally sporting capes or costumes and carrying posters or flags, will run alongside. It is madness — more 4th of July than Mardi Gras — but there’s tremendous excitement and energy that erupts when they churn past whether you’re watching in Park City or Paris.
The Tour also feels like Sundance when you watch a team like Axeon comprised of young cyclists — all under 23-years-old. While they look like pals of my college-aged son, kids I’d find raiding my pantry, these are paid professional athletes who are completely focused and driven once they are standing on the pedals. When Axel says, “Action,” you get the sense that you are seeing the next Hollywood stars in their breakout performances. These are the riders to watch at this year’s finish on Main Street in Park City and on the Champs-Élysées in the future.
That year, Axeon had two team cars sent out to follow its riders and provide tactical, mechanical and other assistance over the stage, which that day, was 99 miles long and climbed 9,345 vertical feet. The discomfort I feel sitting inside the car is nothing compared to how these guys suffer from the start as they ascend the Hogsback in the aptly named Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. It’s a beautiful but brutal climb, and several riders, even experienced racers, are humbled by Utah’s high-altitudes (Hogsback and Boulder Mountain will take them to 6300’ and 9600’ above sea level, respectively) and are dropped early on.
I was in the team car expected to follow the breakaway, the rider or riders who at the moment of opportunity blast ahead of the peloton, the main group, in the hopes of gaining advantage all the way to the end. Because of aerodynamics (yes, rocket science), this often doesn’t succeed allowing the peloton to reach these renegades, sometimes just meters before the finish line.
That didn’t happen today. The breakaway took an early 6-minute lead during the first of many painful climbs on an exceptionally hot day, and the peloton never caught them. Everyone, including the rocket scientists, all have different theories on how much time a breakaway can get ahead and how many miles are needed for the peloton to overtake it. All these theories, however, rarely account for human nature or Mother Nature, dumb luck or bad luck.
A brief shower can slow down the most-aggressive riders on a descent.
A crash by the leader can launch another to the front.
So, the peloton keeps racing to the end; those dropped off the back keep riding hoping to ride another day.
“Oh, thank you, Baby Jesus,…” moans a lone rider from another team dropped from the herd earlier and now creeping past our car. He sees the caravan just in front of us as the race slows momentarily in a feed zone allowing the riders to fuel up. Jeff Louder cracks up prompting Axeon Head Mechanic Eric Fostvedt sitting behind me to extemporaneously recite the next few lines from Will Ferrell’s hilarious monologue in Talladega Nights. Louder gets reflective. “That’s the best and the worst feeling,” says Louder, “after being dropped to see the riders in the feed zone.” He explains that, in a minute, the poor guy will realize that now that he has caught up, he will have to race again. There truly is no rest for weary.
With the lull, I ask Fostvedt whether there is a type of mechanical problem he dreads during a race, because I know I’d rather walk home than change a rear flat. Casually and without a hint of condescension, the former pro and top gear head replies, “No.” Fostvedt continues by explaining that he tries to plan for everything. That is apparent from the numerous tires and tools piled around him in the back seat and cargo area as well as the bicycles on the roof. The Subaru looks like a mobile repair shop.
After traveling with him all day, what he doesn’t confess is that his job requires meticulous planning and flawless execution. Not having the right tire at the right time can mean the end of rider’s stage or entire tour.
“You do the work the night before or during the race … If nobody knows I’m here, then I’ve done a good job,” he humbly adds.
More than once that day, I witness his stealth as he sprints from the still-moving car to swap out flat tires or precariously hangs out the rear passenger window behind me to fix someone’s chain or derailleur — again, in a moving car — trying to get the rider back in the hunt without either of them flying off the road. After this, I ask whether there’s a jersey for Most Aggressive Mechanic. The unsung heroes just chuckle.
Being prepared is serious business and is Job No. 1 on this team with the goal being to get paid to do what you love.
In what you suspect is an oft-cited credo, Louder says, “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.” This is a sport where, “A winning season for a rider can be winning one race,” he explains.
That means there’s constant disappoint and self-doubt. His job as Team Director is to make sure everyone’s well prepared and on-task, “to take away the stress so the riders can do their job.” Axeon’s mission is to develop these young athletes so they can get the experience, success and attention to secure contracts with other teams to stay on their bikes for years to come.
The Finish Line
It is getting late and, with less than 10 miles to go, it becomes apparent that the peloton is not going to catch the breakaway.
A ribbon of road is winding its way up the forested Boulder Mountain and down again to the finish in Torrey, the gateway to another gorgeous backdrop, Capitol Reef National Park. The peloton is spent, and the race is calm. Someone in the three-man breakaway, none with Axeon sadly, will take the win.
All that’s left is to predict the minutes and seconds the peloton will roll in behind them. The guys chime in with somewhere around 1:47 and 2:30. Frankly, I’m barely listening. No, I’m not ill. I looking ahead, not just up the road but all around this stunning place. I’m wanting to remember this moment, this exciting day. Feeling like I did the first time I skied a black run at Snowbird or rappelled off a canyon ledge in Zion, I’m really beginning to enjoy the ride on one of the world’s most scenic roads in America’s Toughest Stage Race. And I do remember. Vividly.
For a Tour of Utah fan, this was an incredible day.
For a Utahn, this is Tuesday. Just another adventure. Whether in the car or cheering from the sidelines.
“2:10,” I boldly declare. (The peloton rolled in at 2:07.)