Will BMC Racing Team member and Aspen resident Tejay van Garderen, fresh from a fifth-place finish in the Tour de France, repeat as USA Pro Challenge champion? Could Boulder’s Tom Danielson follow up his second consecutive Tour of Utah win with a win at the USA Pro Challenge? He finished last year’s race in third behind van Garderen and Mathias Frank.
Danielson’s Garmin Shrap teammate Christian Vande Velde — now retired — also won in 2012. Or will someone else emerge from the peloton? What about 42-year-old fan favorite Jens Voigt — how will he do in his farewell tour’s final race?
The countdown is on. The 2014 USA Pro Challenge kicks off Monday, Aug. 18, in Aspen.
Now in its fourth year, the race is widely considered to be one of the most popular and most challenging stage races in North America, and this year looks to be no different.
Back in May when the race route was released, van Garderen said that this year “looks to be the most challenging route yet.”
Over the course of the seven-day race, riders will cover more than 550 miles and nearly 40,000 feet of elevation gain, with a number of stage starts and finishes higher than the highest point in the Tour de France.
Speaking of this year’s course, Pro Challenge CEO Shawn Hunter said, “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.”
Among the highlights of this year’s route, the race will feature its first mountaintop finish at Monarch Pass (11,300 feet), as well as late stages in Breckenridge and Vail that will likely be key to the general classification (GC) standings.
This year’s course will top out during Day Five as riders reach the top of 11,542-foot Hoosier Pass, on their way to a finish in Breckenridge.
With the race just a day away, here’s a look ahead the week ahead.
Stage 1: Aspen
Following the success of last year’s start, Aspen will once again host a circuit race for the opening stage. With a starting elevation of 7,908 feet, riders will have to acclimate early. Last year 2013 Tour de France winner Chris Froome’s Team Sky struggled from the get-go; he later admitted that they arrived too late to properly acclimate to the altitude. Beyond the challenges of racing at altitude, the Aspen/Snowmass circuit course will be a fast-paced start to the race. The 65-mile course includes three 22-mile laps between Aspen and Snowmass. Each lap will have riders fighting 2,300 feet of elevation gain with little time to recover. The steep trek up from Aspen to Snowmass will be a challenge early, and the short laps could see another tight peloton for Day One.
Stage 2: Aspen to Crested Butte
From Aspen riders will head to Crested Butte, through Basalt and Carbondale and up over both McClure (8,763 feet) and Keebler (9,980 feet) passes. In addition to the two passes, uphill will be the theme for the day with a difference of 2,000 feet in elevation between Aspen and Crested Butte (9,090 feet). Following a sprint section in Carbondale and the climb over McClure Pass, riders will face a 20-mile roller coaster on Gunnison County Road 12. Alternating between pavement and dirt, this could make for an unpleasant stretch depending on conditions. After Keebler Pass the stage will finish with a sprint through downtown Crested Butte and a steep climb to Mount Crested Butte. Tuesday’s stage also features three King of the Mountain (KOM) competitions.
Stage 3: Gunnison to Monarch Mountain
At last year’s post race press conference, Tom Danielson suggested a mountaintop finish for this year’s race. Pro Challenge organizers apparently took the advice to heart. During Stage 3, riders will not only have to contend with a mountaintop finish at Monarch Mountain Ski Area, they will also have to climb up and over Monarch Pass first on their way from Gunnison to Salida. Spectators on the pass will have two chances to see riders pass the same spot on the course. Stage 3 starts in Gunnison and heads east for 35 miles before tackling the 11,300 foot Monarch Pass. From the top of the pass riders will then descend the eastern slope and do two 9-mile loops in and around Salida before returning to Monarch. The final stretch of the stage includes close to 20 miles of climbing to the finish line at the Monarch Mountain Ski Area (10,800 ft).
Stage 4: Colorado Springs Circuit Race
Stage 4 jumps to Colorado Springs for another circuit course stage. But it certainly won’t be a walk in the park. Starting at the Broadmore the peloton will enter a 16-mile circuit that will be raced four times. Riders will be challenged by tough climbs and descents on each lap through the Garden of the Gods and on Ridge Road, which includes a 17 percent grade. Expect to see riders create some separation in this stage.
Stage 5: Woodland Park to Breckenridge
The Stage 5 finish in Breckenridge could be key to the overall race with only two stages remaining after its conclusion. The day starts in Woodland Park. Riders will pass through Pike National Forest on newly paved Tarryall Road. This will be another day for climbers with a steady gain from start to finish. The stage’s conclusion will be especially difficult as the race passes through Fairplay and riders prepare to reach the race’s highest point at Hoosier Pass (11,500 feet). The steep grade on Moonstone Road could once gain be a deciding factor in the stage’s final miles.
Stage 6: Vail Individual Time Trial
For the second consecutive year the race will hold a time trial on Vail Pass. Only a few seconds separated GC winner Tejay van Garderen and third-place overall finisher Tom Danielson for the stage win there last year. As the second-to-last stage, Vail could once again be key. With origins in the Coors Classic, the time trial is a popular stage that attracts a lot of fanfare. Riders will start in Vail and climb most of the way up Vail Pass to the stage finish. While it may be short, it will be punishing. The gentle start leads to a steep 3-mile climb all to familiar to any cyclist from Summit or Eagle counties. Strategy will win the day on this challenging stage.
Stage 7: Boulder to Denver
The race heads to the Front Range for its final stage. Sunday’s conclusion to the race will start in Boulder, home to the Garmin-Sharp team and a number of riders, and end in Denver. While last year’s final stage was a fairly tame — albeit at high speed — circuit through downtown Denver, this year looks to present one final challenge. From Boulder riders will head to Golden, then up and around Lookout Mountain (7,320 feet) before coming back through to Golden. From there the riders charge toward Denver for a shortened version of last year’s circuit course. The race’s final miles will take place on a three-and-a-half-lap route through portions of downtown.
Note: The Pro Challenge will once again be featured daily on NBC Sports Network, starting with a preview show Sunday, Aug. 17, at 5 p.m. Check local listings for other days. The full race can also be streamed online. Additional information is available at www.usaprocyclingchallenge.com.