Park City • The champion couldn’t defend his title on Sunday. For consolation, he turned the Tour of Utah’s final stage into his personal redemption ride.
After a shaky start to the Tour of Utah, Levi Leipheimer stood outside the Omega Pharma-Quickstep trailer on Thursday and all but conceded a third straight overall win. Three stages in, he sat well outside the top 25 and had lost two teammates from an already-small, six-man squad.
Tour of Utah
» Levi Leipheimer won Stage 6 of the Tour of Utah, claiming a bit of redemption after Omega Pharma-Quickstep’s poor start.
» Leipheimer entered this Tour as the two-time defending champion, but was knocked out of contention after the Stage 2 team time trial.
» BMC’s Johann Tschopp, of Switzerland, kept the yellow jersey for the overall Tour victory.
He would focus on picking up a stage win, the 38-year-old said then.
The Tour’s fifth-oldest rider accomplished that in spectacular fashion — briefly threatening eventual champion Johann Tschopp’s lead despite entering the day over two minutes back. A troubled year that included late-race crashes and a broken leg gave way to a brilliant finish past a packed downtown, with Leipheimer raising his fingers in the air and soaking in the powdered chalk and clanking cowbells.
For style points, he took the stage widely lauded as the Tour of Utah’s hardest ever — a brand new route that started and ended on Main Street, looping through from Wolf Creek Ranch to Heber Valley to the daunting final climb at Empire Pass.
Despite its deceptive length — at 76.63 miles, the Tour’s shortest road stage — the path featured some of the steepest pitches of the week, including some 22-degree inclines.
"The last day is insane," said Joe Dombrowski, who scouted the route with Bontrager-Livestrong before the Tour. "It’s crazy."
Part of the final stage wasn’t even paved at this time last year. The first-time inclusion supplanted Stage 5, which ended in Snowbird, as the Tour’s toughest. That route had been the race finale in years past, and was traditionally known as the "Queen" stage.
"We’ve always talked about the "Queen" stage, but the last day, that’s going to be the "King" stage," said UnitedHealthcare’s Jeff Louder. "It’s that much harder."
Leipheimer may have had some minor advantage on the route. After winning last year’s Tour of Utah, the Rowland Hall graduate remained in the state to train — largely on the path that became the new stage.
On Sunday, he attacked hard on the familiar climb, moving into the lead in the last half-hour of the race. Although a general classification victory was still unlikely, his late effort pressured Tschopp and the BMC team to retain the yellow jersey.
"It was quite difficult," Tschopp, of Switzerland, said through a translator. "From time to time, the gap was very small. I did what I needed to to get through the course."
Another team that put in a strong showing was UnitedHealthcare, which claimed two stage victories and put two riders in jerseys on the final day: Louder as the top Utah rider, and first-stage winner Rory Sutherland as the most aggressive rider.
"It’s a cool experience," Sutherland said. "It brings out the fans, it brings out the people. I don’t know how you can say it’s not enjoyable. It’s obviously very painful, but I don’t think there’s any rider who didn’t enjoy the people."
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