OGDEN — Two years ago Connor O'Leary was a 19-year-old reeling from a cancer diagnosis when he traveled to Park City to watch the first stage of the Tour of Utah as a spectator.
Tuesday he wasn't just riding in the 2012 Tour of Utah, he was representing the development team of another, slightly more famous cancer survivor's: Lance Armstrong. And to make the moment even more special, the Skyline High graduate earned the Best Utah Rider jersey in State 1 of the week-long race.
"It's huge," said the 21-year-old said of participating in a UCI stage race in his home state. "I remember two years ago, right after I got my diagnosis, I went and watched the Prologue. And I was just wishing and wanting to be there. It's cool to finally be here."
It was a test for even the most experienced riders as 130 competitors representing 17 teams navigated the 131-mile course in Tuesday's extreme heat. O'Leary finished in 62nd place with a time of 5 hours, 30 minutes and 16 seconds.
He didn't think he'd won anything until someone from the team's management team called him to tell him he'd earned the Best Utah Rider's jersey.
"It's great," he said. "A jersey is a jersey — especially in a stage race.
O'Leary grew up in the Salt Lake valley — riding many of the same streets the Tour of Utah will navigate this week. He got into cycling thanks to his father, who was a "recreational rider." O'Leary's father introduced him to cycling in an unusual way. He took his then 8-year-old son to a seven-day ride across Iowa called Ragbrai.
"I was hooked ever since," he said with a grin.
It was just a year after graduating (2009) that he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He underwent chemotherapy, and despite his best efforts, he had to give up cycling while he battled cancer.
"I tried to ride the first few weeks, but it took me down," said O'Leary. "I got blood clots two weeks into chemo, so that took me out for three months … I lost all my muscle."
It wasn't until last August that he was able to train the way he wanted to, and that wasn't just for fun.
"I didn't want to just ride to ride, I wanted to race," he said. He began racing in late 2011 and said he's honored and proud to ride for the Bontrager Livestrong Team, which was founded by Armstrong in 2009 to foster young talent.
He said he'd be thrilled to be riding for a team that is a constant reminder of what he's already overcome.
"It's sweet," he said after an awards ceremony in downtown Ogden. "I love it. It's an awesome opportunity. It's cool to ride for a team that support cancer awareness…(it's even) more special now."
O'Leary wasn't the only rider to have a breakthrough moment Tuesday. The Stage 1 winner, Rory Sutherland, earned an honor his team, UnitedHealthcare, hadn't earned in half a dozen years of racing — a stage win.
"We've been trying to win one of these for six years in the U.S.," said Sutherland, who grinned the entire awards ceremony. He edged Damiano Caruso, Liquigas-Cannondale, by four seconds, with a time of 5: 25:31. Brent Bookwalter, BMC Racing, was third.
The Australian said the win belonged as much to his teammates and sponsors as it did him.
"As a team we've been doing the big races," said Sutherland, "in the U.S. — the Colorados, the Utahs, the Californias, back to the Missouris and the Georgias, and we've been, I think competitive at pretty much all of them. But we just seemed to miss that stage victory. We hadn't managed to win one, all those years, for the team and how much they've kind of stood behind me, in how we've been racing this year, and all the ups and downs, it's incredibly important."
The teams now prepare for the team time trial at Miller Motor Sports Park in Tooele on Wednesday.
"Team time trials is a totally different thing than we did today," said Brent Bookwalter. "It's almost a different sport. Time trial in itself is very unique to cycling, and then to have it be a team time trial is pretty rare, only get a chance to do a couple of them in a year, especially in the U.S. … Team unity and cohesion, all of those things really show through."
And when asked whether he thought he could hold onto the yellow jersey throughout the week, Sutherland said he didn't feel any pressure to do so.
"It's a pretty brutal tour," he said, "and I don't feel the pressure to go for the overall. But like I said, if I have the legs when I get there, we'll try and see what happens."
A look at Stage Two
Today is Stage Two of the Tour of Utah presented by XO Communications, a Team Time Trial at Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele. The 13.5-mile course is a three-lap race against the clock on the fast and flat race track west of Salt Lake City. Teams will race together in a tight formation with the team's time being that of the fifth rider to cross the finish line. Racing begins at 12:45 p.m. and will wrap up at approximately 3:45 p.m.
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