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.
"If the Colorado race is successful, and I hope it is," Miller said, "I think we will see a very collaborative effort to make both races work together. USA Cycling is here and they are committed to helping us create a schedule that will work for both races."
Heiden shares that hope.
"I think the best scenario is that both races piggyback off each other in a synergistic form," Heiden said.
Still, for Pro Tour racers like Leipheimer and Hincapie to race NRC events like the Tour of Utah, the UCI typically needs to be petitioned for a waiver — the UCI doesn't want the smaller races to be dominated by bigger teams and limit the development of younger or smaller teams.
"My hope is that the UCI isn't that shortsighted," Heiden said. "I think they'll make some concessions so both races can thrive."
For now, the Tour of Utah is on solid ground, and inclusion on the UCI calendar is on the agenda.
"An aggressive timeline is maybe three years," Miller said. "A more realistic timeline is more like five years. But we have already been talking about that and we want to make it happen."
If it does, Utah's growing cycling fan base will see even more epic battles on the Wasatch Front.
Tour of Utah
state Capitol, time trial, 6 p.m. start
Stage One, today
Ogden to Salt Lake City road race, 11 a.m. start
Stage Two, Thursday
Thanksgiving Point to Mount Nebo road race, 10 a.m. start
Stage Three, Friday
Miller Motorsports Park, individual time trial, 6:30 p.m. start
Stage Four, Saturday
Downtown Park City, criterium, 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. auxiliary events, 4:30 p.m. pro race start
Stage Five, Sunday
Park City to Snowbird road race, 11 a.m. start
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