As has become tradition, I arrived in Utah a week early to adapt to the high altitude. Major thanks to Mike Conti and crew for hosting last year’s champ, Joe Dombrowski, and me. The first few days at altitude make you doubt all of your preparation. Fortunately, I have the experience to know the physical emptiness passes, or at least that it’s the same for everyone. I enjoyed an evening fishing the Provo river with retired Tour of Utah legend, Burke Swindlehurst and friend, and meeting Olympic nordic combined champions to watch them train on the big jump. When the race rolled around and the rest of our seven man team arrived, confidence was up.
Stage 1: 135 km
The highlight of the stage was the neutral start. Zion national park opened its gates for us to ride 25 km through its stunning, bizarre, red rock formations. Then a long steady climb dragged us up to 10,000 ft above sea level. A dangerous breakaway escaped. Other teams looked to us as defending champions to pull. Wanting to save firepower for the decisive stages we looked to the sprinters to chase for their chance at the stage.
Our director, Bingen, told Phil Gaimon to start pulling. I felt bad for Phil, who had trained for the big mountains, so I asked Bingen to wait. “Let it go to five minutes before we start riding. If it gets out of control, I’ll rip them back to two minutes by the top.” It was a little arrogant of me, but with only seven riders I wanted to bluff in an attempt to save our fire power.
One team set the pace, but it became clear that the break would win without help. Of course, I had set myself up to start pulling. I did pull two minutes out of the break with our neopro rider, Dibbens, but it hurt. Phil took over, and then the sprinter’s teams did the rest on the downhill. We caught them and it all worked out in the end. Thanks to many of you, I was voted, “Best Ambassador” for the sport and received a special jersey on the podium.
Stage 2: 160 km
We had to mark certain riders, and they used the mountainous start attempting to break our team. Large groups would get away and we had to stay organised at the front, dragging them all back until everyone was so shattered that just two riders slipped away and we called truce. Surely, we believed, the yellow jersey’s team would want to defend their jersey. But, they let the gap get too large. I started pulling just to get some momentum, but with 30 km to go, it was clear that the break would take the stage. Three of us got back on the front to reduce the gap. It was nothing to stress about but the tactics from the other teams were frustrating. Robin Carpenter took the stage win, two minutes ahead of us.
Stage 3: 192 km
A long, wide open road through the badlands of Utah brought us to the base of Mt. Nebo, a 30 minute climb into the hemisphere. We helped with the chase, and shepherded Joe Dombrowski and Andrew Talansky through the high speed melee to the lower slopes. US Champ, Greg Daniels, crashed and broke his collarbone. The peloton detonated under pressure from team JellyBelly. Three riders, including Andrew Talansky, took off. Over the radio I could hear Bingen giving time checks and encouraging him over the top. Joe lost four minutes, but Talansky placed third gaining time on all but Lachlan Morton and Adrien Costa.
Stage 4: 155 km
Finally a clear sprint day, and a clear race leader convinced other teams to take up the chase. We hung back on what was one of the most mind numbing courses I’ve raced, two long laps on a four lane highway. It was like riding a stationary trainer with no Netflix and just enough crosswind to be a nuisance. I stayed upwind of the team, keeping them sheltered until the three much more entertaining finishing circuits. We caught the break and a counter move took off with Phil Gaimon. We caught them on the final lap, and I attacked with a French rider. We didn’t get far, and the pack sprinted out the victory. My family, along with my newborn niece, were waiting at the finish.
Stage 5: 185 km
On Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake, we saw buffalo, pronghorn, and coyotes out the bus window. After a couple hot laps, the break formed. We missed it, and at one point I was in a group with Talansky between the peloton and the breakaway. However, my legs were cooked after the ballistic start. The peloton finally settled into a steady chase over two long climbs. We descended the road where I crashed at 100 kph last year without incident, and barrelled into the finishing circuits. A steep 3 km climb, thinned out the peloton on the first lap. I followed an attack over the crest, and then got dropped on the next lap. Howes and Talansky placed 3rd and 4th respectively.
Stage 6: 185 km
We had marked out the queen stage, where Joe took the yellow jersey last year, as our place to strike again. Like last year I forced my way into a thirteen man breakaway. Like last year, I was one of four to survive Guardsman Pass at 10,000 ft elevation ahead of the peloton. Like last year I anticipated waiting and working for Talansky when they came to me. A strong headwind at the base of the final climb threatened our strategy. It would be hard to create separation. Two riders bridged from the peloton. I followed them and dropped my original breakaway companions. Then I dropped the other two, and forged on alone. I had to survive until the wind died down or shifted to be of any use to Andrew. Then I saw them coming, smiled at the TV camera, took a few deep breaths, and waited for the green train. They latched onto my wheel and I maintained the pace. Talansky said, “Ben, Go!” So, I ratcheted up the pace until I blew. Bettiol, then Dombrowski took over. Talansky made his move with Darwin Atapuma of BMC, and drove it all the way to the finish in first place. Talansky took the yellow jersey and I was awarded “Most Aggressive” on the stage.
Stage 7: 125 km
All we had to do was keep the race together until Empire Pass. Then it would be up to Dombrowski and Talansky to finish it off. Oddly everyone within minutes on GC attacked us for an hour. It nearly killed us to reign them in, but Talansky was protected. Once a nonthreatening group escaped, we set tempo. BMC had other plans. They brought the break back to two minutes, and tried sending riders across. Talansky followed, but by the base of Empire Pass we had six riders in a group of forty. We did a lead out into the climb, and swung off one by one. Morton attacked, and Talansky couldn’t follow. By the finish he had slipped to third overall. We were disappointed but not with Talansky. He fought like a champion, but wasn’t on his best day. We celebrated the team effort and then scattered to make our flights.
Two days later, including a 24 hour stop over on the east coast, I landed in Italy. The Vuelta a Espana begins one week from today.