When Jason Preston was a youngster growing up as a bicycling enthusiast and watching the Tour de France on television, he got to thinking how Utah's mountains and valleys might stack up to those in France.

His thought: "Boy, why not here? What would it be like to have Lance Armstrong in my backyard, racing up these mountains right here?"

Armstrong has retired, but Preston's dream of having many of the top American pro cyclists — eventually many top international racers — is coming true.

The Tour of Utah, which he started and directed for the first time last year as an all-comers race, has expanded to a six-stage event for the country's top 100 riders, now that it has the backing of Zions Bank, the Utah Sports Commission and the Larry H. Miller Group, for whom the event has been renamed the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah.

The race will be held Aug. 7-12 and have a $40,000 purse, along with another $5,000 kicked in by Zions at Tuesday's press conference at the Delta Center. This year's budget is about $800,000, and that will escalate in years to come, said Preston.

The country's four top teams — Toyota United, TIAA-Cref, Health Net and Navigators Insurance — have already signed on for the 500-plus-mile event that bills itself as "America's toughest pro cycling race," mainly because of Stage 6.

Stage 6, being called the Snowbird Mountain Race, on Aug. 12, is 185 kilometers starting at the Delta Center and going through Emigration Canyon, Park City and Provo Canyon, past Sundance and over the Alpine Loop to Traverse Ridge and then up Little Cottonwood Canyon Road to the 'Bird.

Other major U.S. races like the tours of Georgia and California can't offer such difficulty.

And it's that challenge that will draw the best, Preston said.

"It's the terrain. It's Utah," he said, adding that such an altitude gain (some 17,000 feet) in just 119 miles isn't available anywhere else. "You can't find a stage like that anywhere."

Gardie Jackson of the Sienna Development/Goble Knee Clinic team, one of four local racers at the press conference, agreed.

"Nobody has ever seen anything like this. Stage 6, from a racer's standpoint, will break the backs of the majority of these riders," he said.

Todd Hageman of the Park City Cycling Academy said cyclists get their kicks pushing their bodies.

"I haven't seen a stage like this anywhere in this country that absolutely pushes you to the near absolute limit. This would be a tough stage if it stood by itself, but being at the end of a six-day series makes it that much more difficult. There's going to be a lot of people (who) find out what they're made of."

Several of the riders said their familiarity with the terrain and altitude will help.

"I've done all those climbs several times, but never together," said Hageman, who appreciates a couple more months to train.

He hopes the Tour of Utah will bring athletes to train here, much like the Olympics beckoned winter athletes, and said the race will allow locals to measure themselves against the best in the country.

The event's date, in the heat of August, was chosen to fit into openings on the national racing calendar and eventually into the international schedule, for when it becomes fully sanctioned.

The first five stages will circle Utah Lake; go from Lehi to the Larry H. Miller Motorsports Park near Tooele and take a couple laps there; wind through Midway for time trials; go from Provo to the top of the Nebo Loop; and circle Salt Lake City, whose cyclist-mayor, Rocky Anderson, attended Tuesday's press conference.

Race routes are tentative now, as permits are being secured, but they are pretty well roughed out.

The Miller Group got involved, said Miller's son, Greg Miller, because such a race allows the firm to get in on the beginning of an event that fits the family's desire for family entertainment and competition that showcases their home state's beauties to the world.

Greg Miller and brother Steve do some recreational bike riding, though not racing. Greg's 12-year-old son Josh rides a bit, too.

"I realized his passion for cycling when he called me at the office one day and said, 'Hey, Dad, guess where I am?' " said Greg. Josh was at Snowbird, having ridden his bicycle up the canyon.

Greg, who can name most of the world's top riders, has been to the Tour de France the past three years. He took his wife and four oldest children the second year, and they rented an RV to follow that world-renowned race for 12 days and 3,400 kilometers.

They rode their bikes to the finish line of the Alpe d'Huez stage, won by Armstrong. "When Lance won that time trial, it was a very emotional thing" for Greg Miller.

Interest by Greg and Steve Miller led the LHM Group involvement with the race at a time when Dad is already immersed with the opening of his Tooele Valley motorsports park.

The Miller Group is also starting the Freedom Peloton, a fund-raising amateur event with proceeds going to Larry H. Miller Charities to promote children's health and education.

Hundreds of volunteers will be needed for the race. Organizers have the volunteer list from the 2002 Olympics and hope to use some of those seasoned people. For information on volunteering or on the race itself, go to www.tourofutah.com.

E-mail: lham@desnews.com