By most bicycle race standards, the 325 miles that comprise the Tour of Utah aren't that big of a deal.
It's the 30,000 feet of vertical gain that will leave the peloton's legs quivering in exhaustion by the time the race wraps up Sunday afternoon.
"It's unlike any other stage race in the country," Utah's Jeff Louder, the defending champion, said. "It's the closest thing to an authentic European race as we have."
Louder, racing for the BMC Pro Cycling team, will certainly be one of the favorites for the race, which begins tonight with a brief but physically demanding 2.8-mile time-trial prologue that begins and ends near the state Capitol.
But the 31-year-old Judge High graduate will not be given an easy road to the top of the podium this year. As if the grueling course wasn't challenging enough, Louder's competition will be as unforgiving as Little Cottonwood Canyon will be on a hot August afternoon.
David Zabriskie, fresh off a strong showing at the Tour de France, has signed up to race on the roads where he started his career. The Garmin-Slipstream time-trial specialist who's also a Utah native will be the odds-on favorite to be wearing the leader's yellow jersey after tonight's prologue. He'll be racing without the benefit of a team to support him but has been climbing strongly in recent months and should be a strong threat to win the overall championship.
Burke Swindlehurst, also a Salt Lake resident, has come agonizingly close to winning the Tour of Utah a couple of times. Riding with a strong support crew on the Bissell Pro Cycling team and wanting nothing more than to win his home race, Swindlehurst will empty his reserves on the climbing stages to make sure he is in contention.
Other cyclists to keep an eye on include Rock Racing's Oscar Sevilla and Francisco Mancebo as well as Floyd Landis of the OUCH Maxxis team.
"We've got a great field of athletes," Tour of Utah director Terry McGinnis said. "Dave (Zabriskie) is strong enough that he won't need a team to be a threat. And I don't think you can ever count Burke out on a climb."
The race has a $45,000 purse, which makes it one of the biggest races on the National Racing Calendar. With several top domestic teams scheduled to be competing, the Tour of Utah is a highlight on the cycling calendar.
"It should be fun," McGinnis said. "It fits perfectly as far as (U.S.) nationals for most of the racers. That's got a lot of them wanting to be peaking this week so they'll be in top form."
After tonight's prologue, the race has daily stages capping off with a downtown Salt Lake City criterium Sunday afternoon.
On Wednesday, the cyclists will start in Ogden, ride to Snowbasin and then through the Morgan Valley before ascending East Canyon and Big Mountain, finishing in what will likely be a fast and furious sprint at the University of Utah.
Thursday takes riders to the Mount Nebo summit for a mountaintop finish, and Saturday's "queen stage" begins in Park City and ends at Snowbird, but not before circling Jordanelle Reservoir and climbing the Alpine Loop.
"It's as good as it gets," Swindlehurst said. "I couldn't be more proud of this race. I think it really shows the state as a cycling paradise with the best roads to race on you can find."
Tour of Utah
Prologue: Utah Capitol — 2.8 miles
Today, 6 p.m.
Stage 1: Ogden to Salt Lake City — 85 miles
Wednesday, 10 a.m.
Stage 2: Lehi to Mount Nebo — 77 miles
Thursday, 10 a.m.
Stage 3: Individual Time Trial, Tooele — 9.2 miles
Friday, 6:30 p.m.
Stage 4: Park City to Snowbird — 96 miles
Saturday, 11 a.m.
Stage 5: Salt Lake City criterium — 90 minutes
Sunday, 2 p.m.
Get live updates from the peloton as the race happens. Follow Deseret News writer Jared Eborn at twitter.com/jaredeborn.