SALT LAKE CITY — The course is as demanding as ever. The field is deeper and more talented than imagined.
For fans of the sport, there are story lines galore.
And it all starts tonight when nearly 200 of the fastest cyclists in the country challenge the roads and mountains of the Beehive State at the annual Tour of Utah.
"I don't think we've ever had as many top guys here," Salt Lake City's Burke Swindlehurst said. "The racing is going to be outstanding."
Swindlehurst is a longtime pro who has been a favorite to win in years past. But now that he's racing without the benefit of a formal team — he'll be riding with a collection of random pro cyclists on a composite team — that goal will be more difficult to reach.
Another top-flight cyclist with a significant local rooting interest who might have his work cut out for him is Levi Leipheimer. After a 13th-place finish at the Tour de France, where he spent more than a week working to support Lance Armstrong, Leipheimer returns to his racing roots and will be racing solo.
"Bike racing fans in Utah should be very excited," Swindlehurst said. "Levi won't be racing with a team, but he's so strong and so good right now that he has to be one of the guys to beat."
Others to watch for include Utah's Jeff Louder, who won the 2008 Tour of Utah. Louder will be racing with the BMC Pro Cycling team and have reigning U.S. champ George Hincapie and Brent Bookwalter — both of whom just completed the Tour de France — to work with this week.
Darre Lill, a Salt Lake resident riding for the Fly V Australia team, was on the final podium last year. A strong time trialist and the winner of the Mount Nebo stage last year, Lill will be on the short list of favorites to win it all.
Last year's overall winner, Francisco Mancebo, is no longer racing for the defunct Rock Racing pro team. But because he enjoyed racing in Utah so much last year, the Spaniard reached out and found a spot on the team of Tour of Utah sponsor Canyon Bicycles. He'll race with current U.S. elite champion Mike Olheiser and some of Utah's best local cyclists such as Dave Harward, Mike Sohm and Tyler Ridesel.
Olympic Nordic combined gold medalist Billy Demong, who lives and trains in Park City, will trade his skis for a bike, as he races with the local Cole Sport team.
Also on hand will be the Trek-Livestrong team — the U23 developmental team founded by Armstrong — with West High grad Chase Pinkham.
The action all starts tonight at the Utah State Capitol with a quick 2.8-mile time trial prologue around Memory Grove.
On Wednesday the field starts in Ogden and finishes near the University of Utah after traveling past Snowbasin, through Morgan and over Big Mountain and Emigration Canyon.
The climbers will own the day again on Thursday when they start in Lehi and travel to Nephi via the west side on Utah Lake before turning east and then uphill to the summit of Mount Nebo.
A time trial at Miller Motorsports Park is on tap Friday, followed by a criterium in the streets of downtown Park City on Saturday.
Sunday is the monster-queen stage of the Tour of Utah — a 102-mile jaunt from Park City around Jordanelle Reservoir, through Heber City and over the Alpine Loop before climbing Suncrest and then up Little Cottonwood Canyon for a dramatic finish at Snowbird.
Tour of Utah
Prologue: Utah State Capitol
Tonight, 6 p.m.
2.8-mile time trial
Stage 1: Ogden to Salt Lake City
Wednesday, 11 a.m.
Stage 2: Lehi to Mt. Nebo
Thursday, 10 a.m.
Stage 3: Miller Motorsports Park
Friday, 6:30 p.m.
9.2-mile time trial
Stage 4: Park City
Saturday, 4:30 p.m.
Stage 5: Park City to Snowbird
Sunday, 11 a.m.