OGDEN — Levi Leipheimer knows how to win America's toughest stage race.
For the last two years in the Tour of Utah, he's managed to out-race the world's best cyclists in the mountains, where he got his start in the sport.
The Rowland Hall graduate moved to Utah from Montana in high school in hopes of honing his ski racing skills. Instead, he fell in love with cycling.
Now one of the world's best, his list of accomplishments is long and distinguished, including an Olympic bronze medal (2008 time trial), three-time champ of the Tour of California, 2011 champion of USA Pro Cycling Challenge (Denver) and back-to-back champion of the Tour of Utah (2010 and 2011) — to name a few.
Still, he admits that even the most accomplished cyclists are facing greater challenges from an ever-growing crop of talented young riders.
"Defending gets harder and harder," he said during a press conference at the Marriott Hotel in Ogden on Monday. "Each win is more difficult than the last. The next generation isn't just knocking on the door, I think they've kicked the door down."
And it isn't just the competition that's gotten tougher. This year the Tour of Utah organizers added a day to the race and made what most described as America's toughest stage race even tougher.
"This state and this country are about to be treated to something very special," said Steve Miller, president and CEO of Tour of Utah. "Seventeen teams, and it's the strongest field ever. It will need to be as this is the toughest course ever."
The teams, which have riders representing 23 countries, will race about 545 miles and climb nearly 38,000 feet in six days of racing.
"It's grown into one of the biggest stage races in the country, and it's kind of a dream come true for us to have these big races in America," said Salt Lake native Jeff Louder, who will compete for United Healthcare this week.
Louder was asked how the competition compares to when he won the race in 2008, and he responded tongue in check.
"It was never harder than when I won," he said, eliciting laughter from the crowd in downtown Ogden. "It's a different race now. It's grown a lot. It's always been really difficult. It's a tough, physical race. For each person, it's very difficult, but the level of the competitor is a lot higher now. It was a big domestic race when I won, and now it's a big international race."
Louder won best Utah rider last year, and said he's thrilled to be back this year, even with the more challenging format.
"I'm definitely happy to be here," said Louder. "It's great to be part of it for so long, to have such a great race in my home state. I'm very grateful."
One change is the addition of the final stage that starts and ends in Park City but winds through Summit and Wasatch counties, navigating some of Utah's most scenic country, but also offering riders some of their steepest climbs, including Guardsman Pass between Midway and Park City.
When asked which day he looked forward to most, Louder made the crowd — and his fellow riders — laugh again.
"I look forward to next Monday," he said smiling. "That final stage (Sunday) is going to be (and then he shook his head). We've always talked about (Stage 5 — Park City to Snowbird Ski Resort) being the Queen Stage. Well, the last day is going to be the King Stage. It makes it that much harder. … There is not a lot of area to hide in this race."
This year the race welcomes one of cycling's most popular and colorful riders, Germany's Jens Voigt. He is known for his candid, and often comedic, comments, and also for the saying cyclists love to throw at each other in tough moments — "Shut up, legs!"
"I have not raced in Utah," he said when asked if he was familiar with the course. "I made the mistake and looked at (the course map), and it promises to be one of the very, very hard courses. It's very hot out there, and with the altitude, it's going to be a very demanding, very hard race. I'm afraid that it just might be that (the toughest stage race)."
He said racers coming from other countries and states have no choice but to deal with the difficult conditions.
"There is no magic," he said. "We just accept the given circumstances."
He praised some of the other riders, including U.S. Olympic team member Timmy Duggan. And then he praised American fans.
"I like that they cheer for everybody," he said. "I like this fair play spirit here."
The race begins today in Ogden at 10:15 a.m., with Wednesday's team trial being held at Miller Motor Sports Park in Tooele. The race's website — www.tourofutah.com — has detailed route information, including what time fans in different communities can see these world-class riders battle for the 2012 crown.
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