After six days, 325 miles and more than 30,000 feet of climbing, the Tour of Utah rolled out of town with a new champion, a new level of national respect and some big goals for the future.
The stage race is already one of the top races in the country, just two years after nearly dying under the weight of too-big, too-soon dreams of joining the prestigious International Cycling Union (UCI) calendar.
After a stellar return in 2008, the Tour of Utah hit 2009 with a smaller overall purse, thanks to a struggling economy, but with a field of cyclists better than the race has ever seen.
"This is the best field we've ever had," said Jeff Louder, the 2008 champion who finished third this year. "The race just keeps growing and getting better."
Nearly 180 cyclists began the race last Tuesday and tried to survive the brutal climbs, the unrelenting heat and fierce competition. Among them, local hero David Zabriskie signed up late for the race and rode without the support of a team. But he was still in contention for a top-10 finish entering the final day and gave the local crowd a thrill by joining a breakaway group in the Stage 5 criterium that held the lead for nearly 45 minutes.
When the race returns next season, organizers hope to give the competitors an even bigger challenge with maybe an extra day or two of racing.
"I believe, within a few short years, that Tour of Utah will become a cornerstone event," said Greg Miller, chief executive officer of the Larry H. Miller group of companies that owns and promotes the Tour of Utah. "I look forward to the progression of that."
The idea that Utah is a venue capable of hosting a world-class cycling race is not being debated. The canyons, mountains, roads and terrain are as demanding as any. Some, however, have questioned whether Utah could support the event.
Based on the crowds lining Little Cottonwood Canyon, downtown Salt Lake and at the top of summits such as Big Mountain and the Alpine Loop, there is certainly a market for the sport.
"The crowds have been unbelievable," Louder said after completing the Sunday afternoon criterium around Washington and Library squares. "To have a crowd like this, on a Sunday in Salt Lake, that's just awesome. The support has been great."
The racing wasn't bad, either.
Rock Racing, a powerful domestic squad filled with international talent, asserted itself on the first stage and never really looked back. Francisco Mancebo, a former Spanish national champion, won a long stage from Ogden to Salt Lake through the back roads of Morgan County and held his lead until the very end, fending off furious attacks from Salt Lake pros Burke Swindlehurst, Darren Lill and Louder.
"It was a race that you have to be strong every day," Mancebo said after securing the overall title. "You can't rest."
Terry McGinnis, the executive director of the race, said he will be cautious in his plans for the race. After a small step forward next year, he said, the goal is to take the 2011 version of the race significantly higher and seek a spot, again, on the UCI calendar. The Tour de Georgia previously held that distinction but was canceled this year because of funding issues. The Tour of Missouri, likewise, has been on precarious financial footing and was nearly canceled this season.
Should the economy rebound and sponsors sign on, McGinnis believe the Tour of Utah would make a perfect addition to the UCI calendar's growing American leg.
"That's Greg (Miller's) vision of the race and mine, as well," McGinnis said. "We will look very hard at doing that in 2011 … We think Utah is in a great position to step in there."
Utah native juggles bicycle racing with his work in particle physics
Cycling fans in Utah are familiar with pros such as David Zabriskie, Jeff Louder and Burke Swindlehurst. They're probably even aware that climbing machines like Darren Lill call the state home for several months of the year.
They might not be so familiar with Reid Mumford.
The Cottonwood High and University of Utah grad, though, is also competing in many of the nation's biggest races as a member of the Kelly Benefits Strategies team and just completed the Tour of Utah in a very respectable 43rd place. But Mumford also has something few cyclists can claim — a doctorate in particle physics from Johns Hopkins University. "Well, I don't know of any other Ph.D.'s out there," he joked Saturday after surviving the brutal Stage 4 finish atop Little Cottonwood Canyon. "It's kind of rare, I guess."
Mumford has spent the past few years balancing his career as a pro cyclist with the research that has taken him to laboratories across the country. "It was hard," he said. "After races, my team would be relaxing, watching TV and movies, and I'd be on the laptop writing code and trying to finish up my research."
Which begs the question: What's a guy with a Ph.D. in particle physics from one of the world's top research universities doing racing a bicycle for a living?
"I'm just going to get slower and slower as I get older," Mumford said. "But I'm pretty sure my mind will always be there. So I figure I can do this for a few years while I'm young and see what happens … I have a pretty good fall-back plan, yeah."
Becoming a cyclist took a back seat to academics for a while. An LDS Church mission to the Philippines was followed by a degree in physics from Utah and then admission to Johns Hopkins. It wasn't until then that he got serious about racing bikes. He quickly moved up the scale of cyclists and turned pro a couple of years ago. All while conducting scientific research.
"It was hard to balance," he said. "I was always busy trying to pass quantum mechanics and going to race at nationals at the same time."
Mumford, his wife Jenni and their young son Magnus maintain a home in Salt Lake City but spend most of the spring and summer in a motor home driving to various bike races.
"I'm going to race for a couple more years and see what happens," he said. "But I'm having fun, doing something I love and I'll see where my research might take me from there."