World’s best riders rise to the Challenge
Special to the Daily
Vail, CO Colorado
Who doesn’t love a nail biter? USA Pro Cycling Challenge CEO Shawn Hunter does. And that’s exactly what he had in mind when designing this year’s event.
The seven-stage cycling race that blew everyone’s expectations out of the water last year with more than a million live spectators and TV coverage in more than 160 countries kicks off Monday in Durango, where Hunter anticipates twice the city’s population will be lining the course to watch.
“The support last year was very humbling,” Hunter said. “I think it’s going to be much bigger this year. When we started designing this race, race director Jim Birrell and I were talking about different routes. Our goal this year was to make a best effort to have a leader change every day. We have five new cities this year, three uphill finishes, more than 30,000 feet of vertical climbing … it’s perhaps one of the most punishing race anywhere. Last year after six days, only 52 seconds separated the No. 1 through No. 7 riders. We decided to experiment with the time trial this year and put it on the last day. The goal is that maybe one of 10 guys could take the overall leadership on the last day.”
The Pro Cycling Challenge time trial was up Vail Pass last year, and Levi Leipheimer – the guy who went on to win the overall race – claimed victory.
Leipheimer will be back to defend his title this year and is looking hot. In spite of breaking his fibula after being hit by a car in April, the 39-year-old Californian, now racing on team Omega-Pharma Quickstep, was in the race saddle six weeks later. Although he ended up 32nd in this summer’s Tour de France – a race in which he’s finished top 10 on occasions – he won the final stage of the grueling Tour de Utah on Aug. 12.
The Pro Cycling Challenge will be stacked with the world’s best cyclists. The only missing notables are 2012 Tour de France champion and Olympic gold medalist Bradley Wiggins, of Great Britain, and his Team Sky and also Luxembourg’s Frank Schleck.
Nearly every other international cycling star will be racing this week, as will all top five finishers in last year’s Pro Cycling Challenge, all of whom happen to be American. Christian Vande Velde took second to Leipheimer last year, both in the Vail time trial and in the overall standings, in which he was just 11 seconds back. Young Tejay van Garderen was third overall and 17 seconds back and also claimed the top American finish with fifth in this year’s Tour de France. Boulder’s Tom Danielson was fourth overall and 21 seconds back. Fifth overall was George Hincapie, one of America’s most decorated cycling veterans, who will be racing for the last time this week.
Last hurrah for Hincapie
Hincapie, who has a line of cycling clothing named after him and is the only cyclist in history to bring nine Tour de France teams to victory, including all seven of Lance Armstrong’s wins, will retire after this week’s Pro Cycling Challenge.
“I did consider stopping after the Tour de France and making that my last race,” Hincapie said of his record 17th Tour, in which he finished 38th. “But I really wanted to have my last one be in the U.S. I felt like Colorado has become quite a big and important race on the calendar, so the opportunity was there to have the USA Pro Challenge be my last one. It’s certainly meaningful to end my career in the U.S.”
Hincapie, like van Garderen, Taylor Phinney, Australian Cadel Evans, Switzerland’s Johann Tschopp, who just won the Tour de Utah, and several other 2012 Pro Cycling Challenge favorites, rides for BMC Racing. It was Hincapie who claimed last year’s Stage 2 from Gunnison to Aspen, which was considered the queen stage of the race and will be Stage 3 of this year’s race on Wednesday.
“It would be nice to repeat my stage win from last year,” Hincapie said. “But we have Tejay coming off a strong performance at the Tour de France. Johann Tschopp just won the Tour of Utah, and Cadel Evans is here, too. So I would imagine I’m going to be doing a lot more work to support those guys than I did last year. We definitely have a good chance to win the overall, so that’s one of our goals.”
Hincapie, who lives in South Carolina, has been training in Colorado all week in an effort to acclimate to the altitude, which he names as the biggest challenge of the race.
“We’re not used to doing efforts at 10 or 12,000 feet,” he said. “The climbs may not be as steep as the ones in the Alps or the Pyrenees, but they’re long. I came in last Sunday night, and hopefully I’ll be ready to go.”
Pro Cycling Challenge organizers certainly have their eye on Hincapie as one of the key contenders.
“First of all, we’re honored that he’s chosen our race to retire. We’re going to see a week-long celebration,” Hunter said. “It was poetic last year when George won the Aspen stage – the rain, the dramatic descent … it was totally cool. Given his talents and his emotions running high, you can’t rule out anything.”
Keep an eye on the natives
Naturally, the guys who live and train here have a distinct upper hand coming into the race.
“The Americans will be in the hunt from start to finish,” Hunter said. “You look at Tommy Danielson who sadly crashed in the Tour (de France). A guy like that is going to have fresh legs and have something to prove. Levi had a great final day in Utah. You’re going to see him peaking. Probably if you’re betting, the Americans will be the favorites. They know these roads and territories better than anybody.”
Adam Lueck, of the Vail Valley Foundation, organizing partners for Stage 4 on Thursday from Aspen to Beaver Creek, has even more specific predictions for this week’s race.
“I definitely see some Colorado pros making it happen – Tejay, Timmy Dugan … I think it will come down to the last day,” he said. “I see Levi and Tejay going for the win in the time trial.”
One thing is for certain … whoever comes out on top is going to have to suffer for it.
“It’s been kind of an internal joke among the organizers. Our little slogan for the race is ‘there’s nowhere to hide.’ There are no breaks,” Hunter said.
What you need to know about the routes
• Monday, Aug. 20. Stage 1: Durango to
125 miles. 9,236 feet of climbing. Kicking off with a five-mile loop around nearly the whole city of Durango, riders head uphill and through a couple of sprint lines to a steady, 30-mile climb that tops out at 10,222 feet at Lizard Head Pass and finishes with a 15-mile descent into Telluride.
• Tuesday, Aug. 21. Stage 2: Montrose to Crested Butte.
99 miles. 8,049 feet of climbing. The first two-thirds of the course comes replete with short, steep climbs over Cerro Summit and Blue Mesa Summit that organizers say will serve as prime ground for breakaways. The sprint lines through Gunnison will be familiar to racers, as will the dramatic uphill finish to Crested Butte (last year’s stage went from Salida to Crested Butte and Leipheimer won it).
• Wednesday, Aug. 22. Stage 3: Gunnison to Aspen.
131 miles. 9,623 feet of climbing. This route is the only repeat from last year’s race, where it was considered the “queen stage.” It’s the longest of the tour and starts with a sprint line through Almont, a climb to Taylor Park Reservoir and a 14-mile climb on dirt to the race’s high point – 12,126 feet at the top of Cottonwood Pass. The sprint line will form again through Buena Vista and then break up for the final climb and descent on Independent Pass. It was pouring rain last year and Hincapie won the stage, followed closely by teammate van Garderen and Danielson.
• Thursday, Aug. 23. Stage 4: Aspen to Beaver Creek.
Are you ready, people? It’s coming our way! 97 miles. 7,740 feet of climbing. Racers kick off the day with the monster climb back up Independence Pass out of Aspen. Elevation is high all day as the tour fires through Leadville, over the Continental Divide and Tennessee Pass before jetting into what is bound to be a wild, curvy descent down Battle Mountain. Minturn is going to be partying all day and will be the best place to tailgate and cheer on racers (don’t get too close, though!). From Minturn, it’s 1,000 feet of climbing to the finish line at Beaver Creek. The winner of the stage gets a lifetime ski pass to Vail Resorts.
• Friday, Aug. 24. Stage 5: Breckenridge to Colorado Springs.
118 miles. 5,538 feet of climbing. The stage begins with a switchback-rich, 10-mile climb up Hoosier Pass to 11,500 feet. Then it’s a lot of downhill. The descent into Fairplay will be lightning fast and as the sprint line passes through Woodland Park, it’ll be flying. The steep climb through Garden of the Gods will be reminiscent of last year’s prologue, and then the stage wraps up with fast loops through downtown Colorado Springs.
• Saturday, Aug. 25. Stage 6: Golden to Boulder.
103 miles. 10,030 feet of climbing. If a Boulder-based rider doesn’t win this stage, it’s going to be a shock. Kicking off with two laps in downtown Golden, the field blasts along the rolling terrain on the Front Range to Boulder, forming a sprint line near Pearl Street Mall and climbing 15 miles through Boulder Canyon to Nederland. The route descends into Lyons, then up Left Hand Canyon, through downtown Lyons and then makes its way toward the final uphill finish, a steep, 3.5-mile, 1,200-foot climbing jaunt to Sunrise Amphitheater on Flagstaff
• Sunday, Aug. 26. Stage 7: Denver time
9.5 miles. 250 feet of climbing. Fast and furious, the final outcome could come down to this. The “race of truth” will use many of the same roads as the 2011 finish in Denver with riders starting at one-minute intervals near the State Capitol Building in Civic Center. Like last year, the course goes out and back along Speer Boulevard and Colfax Avenue, then runs along Larimer Street to 17th Avenue for a short but technical burst through in City Park and then back to the finish line on Broadway.
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