The Tour of Utah sent out 17 invitations this year. And all 17 teams accepted leaving 20 or so more banging on the door.
"Teams are fighting over each other to get into the race," said Optum Pro Cycling rider Reid Mumford, a Utah native who is entering the event for the fourth straight time. "It really is prestigious now."
This is something of a landmark year for the Tour of Utah, which kicks off Tuesday morning in Ogden with a 131-mile road race. Taking advantage of the state's steep climbs and dry heat, the six-day Tour proclaims itself "America's Toughest Stage Race." Whether that's true can certainly be debated; what can't be is the race's dizzying growth since its inception in 2004.
First, the fans: Over the past three years, attendance has jumped from 25,000 to 85,000 to 225,000; this edition is prepared to handle over 500,000 with ease. Even those who can't make the Tour in person this year can watch two hours of live coverage per day on Fox Sports Network a first for the race as well as complete live coverage online.
Then, the competition: The most recent field of 129 hails from 23 different countries, includes 11 Olympians and a race-record seven teams from the Tour de France. Big-time stars include two-time defending Tour of Utah champion Levi Leipheimer, seven-time U.S. National Time Trial winner David Zabriskie both with Utah connections and famed German rider Jens Voigt.
And, of course, the money: a roughly 400 percent bump in the marketing budget, which has manifested itself in posters, bus ads and digital billboards that line I-15.
"We've said that every single year. We say this is a key year, this is a key year, this is a key year," said Tour of Utah president Steve Miller. "But this year really is a key year. â¦
"We're laying it all out there. Our goal is for it to be impossible to live in the state of Utah and not know the Tour of Utah is happening."
Miller stresses that the recent push was made possible only by a carefully laid foundation. From its beginnings as the local Thanksgiving Point Stage Race to its inclusion last year on the UCI America Tour a status that allowed it to start inviting top-caliber teams the importance of long-term viability was always front and center.
The Tour de Georgia (2003-08) and the Tour of Missouri (2007-09) provide cautionary tales. Both races rose to prominence quickly and received UCI qualification, but neither exists today after running into financial shortfalls. The Tour of Utah ran into a similar hiccup in 2007, suspending the race before re-launching successfully the next year.
"In 2007, in hindsight, we probably varied from the game plan a little bit," Miller said. "Rather than put on the race in an unorganized, unprofessional fashion, we said no. We're going to put the brakes on, we're going to circle the wagon."
Highlights this year include the starting road stage in Ogden. The traditional prologue has been removed, which means that teams will start en masse in a peloton for more stunning visuals. The final stage in Park City, which starts and ends on historic Main Street, is a brand new course that features 22 percent inclines.
"It's a lot different than it was several years ago," Mumford said. "This year's course looks very difficult. I think it's probably the hardest one they've ever had."
Tour of Utah primer
The Tour of Utah starts Tuesday at 10:15 a.m. with a 131-mile road race in Ogden.
The six-day stage race boasts 11 Olympians and seven Tour de France teams.
For the first time, two hours of live coverage will be provided on Fox Sports Network each day.
Tour of Utah overview
Stage 1 • A 131-mile route that starts and ends on Ogden's 25th Street. A trip through Morgan County's canyons will end with a massive sprint finish. Start time: 10:15 a.m. Estimated end: 3:45 p.m.
Stage 2 • Miller Motorsports Park hosts the tour's first-ever team time trial. Each team completes three laps of a 4.5-mile course, an event president Steve Miller likens to "watching a locomotive." Start time: 12:15 p.m. Estimated end: 3:45 p.m.
Stage 3 • An 85.5-mile road race that starts on Ogden's 25th Street and ends at the University of Utah Research Park. Climbs on the North Ogden pass and up to the Big Mountain summit will be followed by a 15-mile downhill dash. Start time: 12:10 p.m. Estimated end: 3:50 p.m.
Stage 4 • The Tour of Utah's longest race at 134.3 miles, this stage has riders start at Xango headquarters in Lehi, crossing part of the original Pony Express route before finishing at EnergySolutions Arena in downtown Salt Lake City. Start time: 10:15 a.m. Estimated end: 3:45 p.m.
Stage 5 • Known as the "Queen" stage, the 101.1-mile race that starts at Kimball Junction and features 10,000 feet of climbing, the most of any part of the Tour. Whoever crosses the finish line first in Snowbird likely has a good shot at the podium. Start time: 11:10 a.m. Estimated end: 3:50 p.m.
Stage 6 • The final 76.73-mile loop that starts and ends on Park City's Main Street is a brand new on the Tour map. The Empire Pass climb is one of the toughest in Utah. Start time: 12:10 p.m. estimated end: 3:45 p.m.