The longest, in terms of miles covered, stage of the Tour of Utah took place on Thursday and, man, oh, man, it circled, underscored and proved again for those who are yet unaware the ridiculously high caliber of athletes who ride bikes for a living, who race them in a blur across all kinds of terrain in this annual gruel-a-thon.
If fans of sport became fans on account of a love for watching other human beings do extreme physical — and, at some level, mental — things at speeds that they themselves are utterly incapable of achieving, then Utah’s big bike race is a must-see.
Especially this year, when smoke-clogged air, from wildfires burning far and near, choke off lungs, making the task of breathing under such exertion feel as though racers are sucking in five packs of Lucky Strike studs while churning away.
What makes the whole thing even more impressive is … everybody, at one point or another, has ridden a Schwinn or a Specialized or a Huffy or a Trek. There have been some 100 million bikes sold in the United States over the past five years. All y’all have become familiar with the feeling of pumping pedals, of climbing a hill or flying down one, of sweat beading up on and wind caressing past your face, of enjoying the modern-day on-wheels experience that the inventor of the rudimentary bicycle, some Frenchman a few centuries ago named Pierre, couldn’t have envisioned.
There’s no way he could have found enough elasticity in his imagination for what happened in Thursday’s Stage 3. It was won by Travis McCabe of the UnitedHealthcare team, who rolled over the distance and then through a lightning round of a sprint finish on a light-weight, high-tech contraption in 4 hours, 4 minutes and 47 seconds. Sepp Kuss of Team Lotto Jumbo NL remained the overall leader. Like most of the other racers, McCabe and Kuss are about as fit a couple of competitors as you’ll see in any sport, men who make body fat a mere rumor.
Jasper Philipsen, of Hagens Berman Axeon, who finished second on Thursday, said he considers himself a “speed guy” and that helped in the sprint finish. Still, the overall challenge of the Tour of Utah, with its thin — and now hazy — air is “very difficult.”
“My throat is hurting,” Philipsen said.
Stage 3 would have killed most ordinary folks, and properly challenged so many of Utah’s cycling enthusiasts, had they thrown on their gear and attempted to keep up.
Afterward, though, McCabe seemed as though what he had accomplished, coming on the back of the race’s initial two stages, the second of which the day before saw racers scale the heights — and launch down them — of Mount Nebo, was routine.
It was anything but.
“It’s so hard and heavy on the legs all day long,” McCabe said.
He added: “It worked out really well.”
The course designated and then covered by more than a hundred racers started on Antelope Island, at a place called Garr Ranch, blew past mule deer and bison grazing on beige landscapes, crossed over a blustery seven-mile causeway through the Great Salt Lake, landed on roads, highways and byways, cutting through neighborhoods and parks and strip malls in Layton, dropping through Fruit Heights and Farmington, up to the Bountiful bench, circling around buildings and jets at Hill Air Force Base, and then back around to the finish line in Layton.
That’s 116.8 miles — 171.1 kilometers for those who roll that way — that, while compared to some other stages wasn’t quite as mountainous, but was challenging enough, including sprints and climbs and descents, elevation changes that all charted out you wouldn’t want to see on your personal cardiograph.
This stage was one of six in the weeklong race that covers a total of 548 miles and 43,780 feet of elevation gain, crossing over stages that already had begun in Cedar City, Payson, now Antelope Island, and will continue from Salt Lake City, Canyons Village up to Snowbird, and in and around Park City.
Spectators lined stretches of Stage 3, allowing them an up-close — although brief — vantage point for and look at the competitors as they sped on by. Crowds in the stands at the finish line cheered as racers concluded their work.
Most everyone on hand, including vendors sitting in booths selling everything from ice cream to safety helmets, seemed to be having a good time, gaining a greater appreciation as they watched, more and more, for the competitors’ strength, conditioning and skill, absolute requirements for being in this race, let alone winning the thing.
Said McCabe: “It’s never easy to win.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3 to 7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.