Tour of Utah already looking ahead

President of cycling event wants it to become one of world's top competitions

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 17 2010 11:13 p.m. MDT

Bobby Lee pedals out of the starting chute near the Capitol on the first day of Tour of Utah bicycle race in time trials Tuesday in Salt Lake City.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As Olympic medalists, world champions and Tour de France racers powerfully and gracefully raced their bikes at speeds in excess of 40 mph around Memory Grove near the Utah state Capitol, Steve Miller was already plotting the 2011 version of the Tour of Utah.

Miller, the president of the popular bike race that is now a six-day event attracting many of the best cyclists in the world, sees the race growing to the point it joins the top tier of races in the world.

"As long as we continue in the direction we're on," Miller said, "we can continue to grow to the UCI level."

As it is, the Tour of Utah can be compared to a Triple-A race with the Tour of California as the big leagues — the International Cycling Union or UCI.

Making a move like that will not be easy — you can't just announce you'd like to schedule a UCI race and then expect Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck to show up on race day.

"Primarily, it's an expensive thing to do," Miller said. "And if we've learned things from the past, it's that you don't want to grow too big, too fast."

That's exactly what the Tour of Utah did in 2007. After a strong 2006 race, the organizers applied for and were granted UCI status. But the economy went in the tank, sponsors were impossible to find and the race was canceled for a year.

Rethinking its strategy for longevity, the Miller family scaled things back dramatically. Even with the setback, the 2008 version of the race was a big success with one of the richest purses on the National Racing Calendar — the United States' top tier of races.

"Right now, it's really becoming one of the premier races in the states," said Eric Heiden, a former Olympic speedskater, Tour de France cyclist and now an orthopedic surgeon in Utah. "We are excited about what the future holds for the race."

Heiden, the team doctor for the BMC Pro Cycling squad that has George Hincapie, Jeff Louder and others racing in Utah this week, is also one of the event's sponsors — lending his name to the Saturday evening criterium in Park City. He said he'd love to see the race grow beyond six days and stretch its reach from Logan to Moab or St. George.

"We are really only starting to explore the possibilities," Heiden said. "This is kind of a short stage race. In the future, I hope we can explore more of the state and take the race to more of Utah."

Doing so will require a significant increase in the race's budget.

Coordinating road closures, sponsorships and attracting the best teams in the world is a pretty tough task. But not something Miller is shying away from.

"We can do it," he said. "We have the Utah Jazz. We have Miller Motorsports Park and we have the Salt Lake Bees. We are not a stranger to doing big sporting events. The real question is how to do it the best way."

That, Miller said, means a slow-but-steady growth plan with an extra day of racing here or there and a larger overall budget, prize purse and an even more demanding course.

"I think the race has a ton of potential," said Levi Leipheimer, a Utah cycling product back in the state for the race after finishing 13th in the Tour de France. "I've been wanting to race here for years, but it just hasn't worked out. I think if the Tour of Utah went UCI, you'd see a lot of Pro Tour teams here, especially with the new race in Colorado."

That new race in Colorado, the Quiznos Pro Challenge, is set to begin next year and has a potentially troublesome date of Aug. 23-28 — overlapping the Tour of Utah by a day and creating a scheduling conflict with teams that may force the top cyclists to choose racing in Colorado instead of Utah.

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