For the first few decades of his life, Steve Miller never owned a serious bike, not one that didn’t have a banana seat and chopped handlebars on it or streamers out the end of the handles or baseball cards flapping in the spokes of the wheels.
Yeah, that’s changed now.
Not only does Miller have a serious road bike, but he has a bike race of consequence, too, a little ditty known as the Tour of Utah. This year, that tour runs across 586 miles of hardtop through some of the state’s most scenic territory — and its most challenging to cover — in six stages over six days. Sixteen teams with 126 racers, including some of the best cyclists on the planet, from 32 different countries, will be competing.
How exactly the tour came into its current condition, as one of three major pro races in the United States, is a story as circuitous as this year’s route. It had its beginnings when Jason Preston, a young cycling enthusiast, walked into the Subaru dealership Miller ran in 2004, telling him he had a modest thing going he thought could turn into something big and asking for the use of a couple of cars and a few thousand bucks in sponsorship cake. Miller listened, learned and, within a short period, was helping transform an insignificant regional two-day jaunt into a full-blown UCI-sanctioned international event.
"I’m not a cyclist by nature," he says.
He is one by serendipity, then.
About the same time Preston approached him for help, Miller was coaxed onto a road bike by older brother and Jazz CEO Greg, who had been previously smitten by recreational riding as a means of staying in shape.
"I always thought cycling was kind of goofy," Miller says. "Getting on a bike with all the gear they wore, I mean, who would wear that kind of stuff?"
Turns out, he would.
"Greg told me, ‘Hey, this is a great way to exercise,’" Steve says. "I bought a bike, started riding, and I was hooked."
Next thing, Miller was covering 200 miles a week, and getting more deeply involved with the race Preston started. By 2008, the Tour of Utah was reconfigured, mostly with funding from the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies, and Steve Miller became head honcho of the endeavor. The race grew from there, and now includes 100 sponsors, headlined by LHM, with partnerships and cooperation from private and public entities. In 2010, the Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling’s world governing body, put its stamp of approval on the tour, and the tour has increasingly drawn better racers and better teams to the field.
With the tawdry escapades of Lance Armstrong, along with other prominent racers, Miller is fully aware of and often asked about illegal doping in his adopted sport. His response: "There’s a whole new generation of cyclists who don’t see [performance enhancing] as cool. They’re tired of it. They want a level, even playing field. They just want to race. They want the strongest guy who’s trained the hardest, who’s taken the best care of his body, to win. … You’re seeing those that have historically [doped] being ostracized and pushed out of the sport."
Whoever wins the 2013 version of the Tour of Utah — the course changes every year — will conquer a bad mother of a track, starting at Brian Head on Aug. 6 and winding up in Park City on Aug. 11, forcing riders to endure heat, thin air, and the burn of 43,000 feet of elevation gain.
Miller proudly echoes the race’s trademarked tag — "America’s Toughest Stage Race" — but also says, "We don’t want to make it so hard that we turn people off and they don’t want to come race here."
Still, those racers will be two-parts challenged, one-part awed by a course that this time includes a second stage that rolls along Highway 12 from Escalante to Torrey, over a twisty stretch known as the Hog’s Back. Anyone who’s ever driven that byway knows what those racers are in for — one of the most unique roads in the world, a ribbon of pavement on knife-edge ridges, that drops away on both sides into topography that mirrors the landscape of Pluto.
Over that stage, Miller says he’d "like to be in the peloton, listening to those cyclists talk to each other. I hope there’s not an accident. I hope these cyclists aren’t looking around at how beautiful that place is. I hope they keep their eyes on the road. … I don’t think they will have raced any place that’s that dynamic in beauty."
In that regard, for those looking in, the tour is a live, rolling postcard, with images of Utah beamed across the United States by Fox Sports Network and throughout Europe, where the racers are rock stars, by Eurosport 2.
The initial stage works its way from Brian Head to Cedar City, the second from Panguitch to Torrey, the third from Richfield to Payson, and the fourth features circuit races covering a loop around the downtown area of Salt Lake City. The final two stages include sections winding through Little Cottonwood Canyon, Snowbasin and Park City.
"I don’t believe there’s a better place in the United States to put on a stage race," Miller says. "This race has grown a lot. It’s legitimate. It’s now a big-time event."
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.
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