DENVER — The USA Pro Challenge keeps trying to upstage itself.
Already billed as the biggest spectator event in Colorado, the weeklong stage race will take riders to a summit finish for the first time in its four-year history this August when they tackle Monarch Mountain and the lung-searing, 11,300-foot Monarch Pass.
Organizers announced the full details of the route during a news conference Tuesday.
The race begins with a circuit around Aspen on Aug. 18 and includes a circuit race in Colorado Springs, a time trial in Vail, several brutal climbs and the finish Aug. 24 in Denver.
But the highlight will undoubtedly be the third-stage climb toward Monarch Mountain that will take riders to a finish nearly twice as high as any other stage race, including the Tour de France.
“It looks to be the most challenging route yet,” said defending champion Tejay van Garderen, of the BMC Racing Team. “I don’t know the Monarch Pass ski resort, but it will be cool to have a tough summit finish. This route suits me well. I’m anxious to add another title to my resume.”
The USA Pro Challenge has become the biggest rival to the Tour of California, which begins this weekend in Sacramento, as the pre-eminent domestic stage race. The biggest reason has been the brutal courses, which have taken riders high into the Rocky Mountains at elevations that are simply not found in the Pyrenees or Alps during some of Europe’s top races.
‘NO EASY STAGES’
This year is no exception. In fact, it may take suffering to a new level.
“I think I’m going to start my diet tomorrow,” quipped Ben Day, of UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team. “I’m still looking for the easy stage. There’s no easy stages here, every day, full-gas.”
The start of the race takes place in Aspen at an elevation of 7,900 feet and includes three laps of 22 miles in the surrounding area that will take riders on more than 7,000 feet of climbs.
The second stage, from Aspen to Crested Butte, includes a trip up 8,700-foot McClure Pass and the nearly 10,000-foot Kebler Pass. Part of the ride will feature stretches of dirt roads that will remind many riders of the bumpy cobblestones of the Northern European spring classics.
“It’s a lot more dirt than pavement, believe me,” said Dave Wiens, a six-time winner of the Leadville 100 mountain bike race and one of the dignitaries on hand for the route announcement.
After the third stage from Gunnison to Monarch Mountain is the circuit in Colorado Springs, home to the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Cycling, followed by the fifth stage from Woodland Park — a new venue for this year’s race — to Breckenridge, with spectacular views of Pike’s Peak.
The race could be decided during the stage-six time trial in Vail, though there will still be chances to shake things up on the final stage from Boulder to Denver.
“Every year we strive to create a route that will challenge the riders in new ways, give spectators more opportunities to see some of the toughest athletes in the world and highlight new parts of Colorado,” said Shawn Hunter, the CEO of the USA Pro Challenge.
The race has certainly become big business in its short history.
Television coverage reaches more than 175 countries, and more than 1 million spectators lined the route last year.
“This is a great event for our region and a very, very exciting event,” said Denver Broncos President Joe Ellis, a board member of the city’s convention and visitor’s bureau. “We host All-Star games, we host conventions and we host a lot of big events, and this is right up there.”