Fandemonium: Rowdy fans highlight Tour of Utah scene

LOGAN, Utah (AP) — Take a paint-swapping NASCAR race, throw in the choreography of a Broadway dance troupe, support it with hordes of cowbell-ringing, costume-clad fans, and top it off with a lung-busting sprint finish.

Organizers say that’s a fair description of the Tour of Utah, which will kick off in Logan on Monday, August 3. Over the past 11 years the tour has grown into one of the largest bike races in North America, billing itself as “America’s Toughest Stage Race,” and is now one of only three multi-day races in North America to earn a 2.HC rating by the Union Cyclist Internationale.

Many of the 120 riders in this year’s event also compete in Europe at the highest level of the sport.

“This tour’s getting bigger,” said Corkey Lundgren, a local rider who will be working the Tour of Utah as a course marshal. “It’s right under the top level. You’ll have that same caliber of riders. As a matter of fact, a lot of riders come directly from the Tour de France.”

That top level of events include races like the Giro d’Italia, Paris-Roubaix and the granddaddy of ’em all, the Tour de France. The atmosphere of the top races, which feature fans who dress up and run alongside the competitors up the steepest climbs, is reflected in the Tour of Utah, albeit on a smaller scale.

“We have a guy who shows up all the time who wears a helmet with antlers,” Lundgren said of the Utah race.

A typical stage might include fans in rainbow wigs or Borat mankinis, waving flags, posing for selfies (a hazardous choice, by the way, since the photographer’s back is to the action) or waving donuts under riders’ noses.

Then there’s the “Yeti,” who favors a camo ghillie suit and has been known to hand out $20 bills to racers along key climbs like Snowbird.

“The riders were all laughing,” Lundgren said of the Yeti’s generosity. “It’s quite a spectacle — you never know what you’re gonna see.”

The sidelines are often a riot of bells, whistling and shouts of “Allez!” (“Let’s go!”) as the colorful peleton flashes past. Motorcycles and team support vehicles — festooned with $10,000 bikes, spare tires, radio equipment and gear galore — zoom around the group, while helicopters above pinpoint the race leaders.

“Once you hear the helicopters coming, you know they’re close,” said race technical director Todd Hageman. “The great thing about bike racing is how close you can get — you feel the energy, you feel the wind coming off the riders.”

Logan will be hosting a stage of the Tour of Utah for the first time, but organizers are confident that Cache Valley will hold its own when it comes to race support. Hageman said that several locals, without knowing who he was, told him how exciting it is to host a stage, and “that’s a good indicator that there’s a sold sports background in Logan. There’s a lot of energy with Logan.”

Each year the course for the Tour of Utah varies, but Hageman predicated Logan will be a regular stop: “If we’re not back next year, I’m sure we’ll be back eventually.”

One advantage of hosting the first stage, he added, is that the media events on Saturday and Sunday are open to the public. During those days, before the competition begins, the riders are more relaxed and have time to give autographs, which Hageman called, “A good way for fans to get to know the riders and meet their heroes.”

Logan is no stranger to large cycling events — from charity rides like the Cache Century, Little Red Riding Hood, Cache Gran Fondo and MS 150 to serious races such as 206-mile Lotoja — but the Tour of Utah is a different level. In both 2013 and 2014, well-known pros Tom Danielson and Chris Horner finished one-two. This year, squads such as BMC and Cannondale-Garmin will headline a field of 16 teams comprised of 120 athletes from 20 countries. Since entries depend on health and training goals, final rosters have not been set, but officials anticipate a handful of Utah riders in this year’s event. Among the candidates are brothers Tanner and Chris Putt of Park City, and former mountain bike racer Robbie Squire of Salt Lake City.

Drew Neilson, president of the Logan Race Club and a Category 3 racer himself, compared the gap between amateurs and pros to “the difference between Little Leaguers and Major Leaguers.”

“For an amateur, climbing out of Logan would be super-competitive,” Neilson said, “but for the pros it won’t be that bad.”

Neilson predicted that a small group of half a dozen or so will break away early, and that the “climb out of Garden City will be the toughest” portion of the race, but with a long downhill on the return, any breakaway will likely be swallowed up.

“The peleton will be flying down the canyon, so it will be hard for people to stay away,” he said. “I think in the end it will be a sprint finish; this will be a day for sprinters.”

Overall, the riders will face a 712-mile course with 51,442 feet of elevation gain over seven days of racing. The Logan stage will roll into Idaho for the first time, as part of the longest first day in Tour of Utah history: 132 miles, including a 48-mile circuit of Bear Lake and 6,553 feet of climbing, with most racers finishing in 4-5 hours. The remainder of the course trends southward to eventually finish in Park City. There will also be a women’s race, a short-course “criterium” in Logan on August 3.

Lundgren’s job as a course marshal is to keep the riders safe, but as a cyclist himself, he is eager to see how the event plays out. Although it may look like competitors are simply riding their fastest, he said, each rider has a specific job. At the top are the “GC” riders, who are fighting for the overall, or general classification, lead. Other specialists are assigned to fight for individual points — and financial bonuses — for being the fastest sprinter or climber over particular sections. Still others are assigned to be “domestiques,” an often thankless job that includes riding in front of the GC riders to block the wind or shuttling water bottles and energy bars from the team car to the GC guys.

“People don’t realize that cycling is a team sport,” Lundgren said. “These teams are all working for one guy.”

That includes the support staff of dietitians, masseuses, mechanics, physicians, physical therapists and team directors. All are on hand in case a rider experiences a mechanical failure or crashes. One rider going down can lead to a gruesome pileup — as evidenced by several major wipeouts in the early days of this month’s Tour de France — especially at speeds in excess of 30-40 mph.

Still, Lundgren said, “These guys are damn good. When they see something in the road, it’s amazing what they can do to avoid it.”

In a day of racing a rider may consume 10,000 calories and endless bottles of water, all without stepping off the bike. (Neilson said racers eat sandwiches and as much “normal” food as possible, but often have to rely on energy bars or gels.) Many of the riders hold casual conversations as they roll along, at least until they hit the more demanding climbs or are jockeying for the finish line.

The Logan stage will start and finish in front of Sunrise Cyclery on 100 East, something Sunrise owner Jeff Keller swears he did not lobby for but intends to “enjoy from the front porch with some cowbells.” As a former racer (and the founder of Lotoja), Keller is familiar with the race day vibe.

“It’s terribly exciting,” he said. “It’s extremely neat to have this level of event in Logan, and in the state of Utah as well.”

Keller compared it to a small town in France hosting a stage of the Tour de France, which always results in “a big celebration.” Topping it all off will be a challenging finish. After the riders return from Logan Canyon they will flow down the Boulevard before taking two laps around the neighborhood, something most observers anticipate will result in a tight race for the tape.

“That’s going to be electric because guys will come into the finish line going 40 mph,” Lundgren said. “The finish line is going to be the exciting place to be.”

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