With 336 miles and more than 30,000 feet of ascent, the Tour of Utah proudly bills itself as "America"s Toughest Stage Race" and warns participants of five days of action unlike any other race in the country.

When it wraps up Sunday afternoon in the heat of the west desert following a time trial race at Miller Motorsports Park, there will probably be few participants willing to dispute those claims.

And it kicks off today with an "easy" 101-mile roll from Nephi through the Sanpete Valley before about 120 cyclist find their way back to Nephi.

"I honestly don"t think there is a more challenging race in the country," Burke Swindlehurst, a Salt Lake resident riding for the Bissell Pro Cycling team, said. "With everything you throw into this race, from the high altitude and the amount of climbing in the heat we have, this is going to be a race unlike anything else we have."

The five-day, five-stage race is one of the highlights of the National Racing Calendar. With a purse of $75,000 on the line, 17 teams of seven cyclists each will begin the race chasing a chunk of the money. Almost as importantly, they will be chasing the honor of being called the Tour of Utah winner.

"We've got our best guys here," BMC Cycling"s Jeff Louder, also a Salt Lake resident, said. "I circled this date on the calendar as soon as it came out. We"re looking forward to this race."

Among the 17 teams racing this week are Garmin-Chipotle, Health Net, Toyota-United and Rock Racing. There are a handful of Tour de France veterans — including Garmin's William Frischkorn and Danny Pate who stood on the podium following stages of the Tour this year — and an Olympic gold medalist. Current NRC points leader Rory Sutherland of Health Net/Maxxis is considered one of the favorites to win the race, as is Garmin's Tom Danielson.

Louder and Swindlehurst may be the biggest local names in the field, but they are certainly not the only ones. Darren Lill, Louder's teammate on BMC, has moved to Utah to train and has shown his form by winning a few local races where the focus is on climbing. American RADD (Racers Against Drugs and Doping) is a Utah-based team featuring several local racers and even an Olympic cross country skier in Billy DeMong.

There is also a composite team of local racers, including current state champion Todd Hageman, Ryan Barrett Dave Harward and others.

While finishing atop the final podium may be out of reach for most locals, there will be a competition within the competition to wear the red jersey as the top Utah cyclist.

"That's what I want," American RADD's Bryson Perry said last week as he took a long look at the jersey during a pre-race press conference. "I want that (jersey) right there."

Among the other races within the race will be the chase for the King of the Mountains, the sprint leader and best young rider (under 23) jerseys.

Though three of the stages are long road races with limited spectator opportunities outside the finish line, Friday's criterium and Sunday's deciding time trial race will offer prime fan participation.

The criterium, which begins at 7 p.m. at downtown's Pioneer Park, takes the field around a two-block, one-mile loop for 60 minutes before the officials ring the bell signaling there are only three laps left to go. The race brings the field up close to the fans who will line the streets and watch cyclists zoom by at speeds exceeding 35 miles per hour. The tight corners and narrow streets will likely result in a crash or two as cyclists jockey for position near the front of the pack waiting for the final few minutes of action.

Sunday's time trial, which begins at 10 a.m. at Miller Motorsports Park, will see a champion crowned after each cyclist completes a 12-mile race against the clock. The stage presents a chance to shave precious seconds off the overall standings.

But what will undoubtedly be the most grinding stage of the week will be the Saturday endurance test beginning in Park City and ending at Snowbird. The race is only 98 miles but features more than 14,000 feet of climbing with ascents to Kamas, over the Alpine Loop, Suncrest and finally a mountain-top finish at Snowbird.

That stage will separate the contenders from the pack.

"I don't know if there is a more difficult day of racing," Swindlehurst said. "The profile is much tougher than L'Alpe d'Huez. But we don"t have the switchbacks."

E-mail: jeborn@desnews.com