Steve Miller is in charge of scenery. Other members of his Tour of Utah staff handle the technical aspects of designing courses for the cycling race, hoping to create daily excitement, a weeklong buildup and a big finish.
Everybody succeeded. The overall competition was decided only by Tom Danielson’s relentless climb near the end of Sunday’s sixth stage of an event that covered 586 miles up and down the state.
What’s next? "We’ve got to think of something else," said Miller, the Tour of Utah president, looking ahead to 2014.
This one will be tough to top. When organizers created this final, demanding stage, featuring the steep ascent of Empire Pass, they wanted to identify a winner right there on that hill. That did not happen last August. As impressive as Levi Leipheimer’s stage victory was, the Rowland Hall graduate could not come close to catching Johann Tschopp in the overall standings, finishing sixth.
In contrast, this was pretty much a fight to the finish, with a big reward for a Sunday charge. Danielson even threatened to win the final stage before riding cautiously downhill into Park City and eventually placing third, as Francisco Mancebo and Janier Acevedo overtook him.
But his initial attack was good stuff, just what the architects had in mind. Unlike Tschopp’s mostly ceremonial ride of 2012, this winning performance took some serious effort Sunday — and throughout a series of stages that began Tuesday in Cedar City.
"I know what the fans want to see," Miller said. "There was attrition every single day. … They have to race hard through all six stages."
That remained true, almost to the very end. Chris Horner and Danielson began the final stage basically tied for the lead and Horner battled gamely, only to have Danielson accelerate on the decisive climb.
Such a move was "not too difficult to see coming," Horner said, describing Danielson as "a fabulous rider at altitude."
The Tour of Utah delivers elevated competition, in every sense. Sunday’s climb of 7,633 vertical feet over 78 miles was suited to Danielson, especially now that he views himself as more than just a good teammate.
Following a discouraging Tour de France, the 35-year-old Coloradoan found himself wondering, "Why am I doing this sport?"
The answer came Sunday on Main Street, where that sensation of crossing the finish line in front of thousands of fans made him realize why professional cyclists do what they do — "just to get that one moment like I had today," Danielson said.
Miller was feeling rewarded as well. In its ninth year, the Tour of Utah "kind of turned the corner," he said. The expansion to southern Utah was well received in those towns, as the likes of Brian Head, Panguitch, Torrey and Richfield experienced big-time cycling. The traditional stages of Salt Lake City, Snowbird and Park City produced dramatic finishes, resulting in a nice blend of old and new and showcasing Utah.
Miller is targeting a seventh stage next summer, with some potential venues elsewhere in the state — "just to keep it fresh," he said.
Scene-setting shots aside, the competitors have the final say in how the Tour of Utah is judged. Danielson made this one memorable, elevating his career and raising the profile of the event. Miller’s mind already is geared toward the 10th annual race, hoping to make it bigger and better. Whatever happens, Sunday’s finish should remain at the core of the blueprint.
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