"This is the toughest climb in American cycling," said course director Todd Hageman. "It's vicious."
Organizers classify Empire Pass as HC (Hors Catagorie). The phrase translates to "beyond category," meaning the climb occupies a place off the charts, above the other five categories.
From chatting with riders, Hageman added, he's gathered that Empire ranks as one of the top-five climbs in the world. The suffering extends over 10 kilometers. Hageman said, "It gets steep fast."
Riders face a grade over 10 percent for most of the climb, melded with stretches of 15 percent grade. At a couple points, the mountain forces the race up a grueling 20 percent slope. Most riders fit special gearings onto their bikes to ensure they reach the top.
"We'll see a very select group coming over Empire," Hageman said. Top climbers Michael Torckler, Michael Hepburn and Tyler Wren should look to press their advantage.
Coming into the start line on Main Street, the mountain men will finish off the fight for the blue King of the Mountain (KOM) jersey, adorned with snowflakes—instead of the traditional polkadots seen in European races—to highlight Utah's altitude and its reputation for "the greatest snow on Earth." The top three riders to cross KOM checkpoints, placed on the tour's major climbs, earn points toward the jersey.
Before riders even attempt Empire, their legs will still be shaking from Saturday's Stage Five. The mountainous route features 10,611 feet of elevation gain as riders ascend from Snowbasin to Snowbird, passing through Park City after a gradual push up Brown's Canyon. The 113-mile stage includes two KOM climbs.
From Main Street, spectators can witness Saturday's fight for King of the Mountain. Riders fly from Kearns Boulevard onto Bonanza Drive, then begin their push up the 15 percent grade on Marsac Avenue to the category 1 climb up Guardsman Pass. The first rider to reach the top of Guardsman earns maximum points in the day's second KOM.
Riders descend Cottonwood Canyon, breaking the posted speed limit for vehicles. Their final climb begins at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon and gains 3,000 vertical feet on the third KOM ascent, an HC climb second only to Empire. The finish greets them at the top of Snowbird.
The tour's final stage, which begins and ends on Main Street, boasts two KOM climbs, beginning with a category 2 at mile 36.5 through Wolf Creek Ranches. At mile 72.8, the best climbers reach the peak of their tour. If Hageman's predictions hold out, they will reach the top alone.
Once the elite group makes the summit, Hageman said, they will careen down switchbacks at over 60 m.p.h., falling 800 feet in the last three kilometers, and race to the finish midway up Main Street.
At the end of that onrush, two jerseys—blue and yellow—might fit over one man.
For maps and additional information, visit www.tourofutah.com
King of The Mountain
The Tour of Utah gains 43,000 feet of elevation over 568 miles. The name, category and elevation of the remaining KOM lines are listed below. Catagories range from one, the easiest climbs, through HC (Hors Catagorie) or "beyond category."
Source: Tour of Utah Tour Tracker