With just 24 hours remaining before the start of the 2014 USA Pro Challenge, top riders gathered at Aspen’s renowned Hotel Jerome Sunday afternoon for the annual pre-race press conference. Colorado locals and early favorites Tejay van Garderen (BMC) of Aspen, last year’s winner, and third-place finisher Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp team) of Boulder took center stage fielding questions on the course, their expectations and the competition with a handful of other riders. The biggest news on the afternoon likely came from Team Netapp-Eundura pro Leopold Koenig. The seventh-place finisher in this year’s Tour de France told the gathered media that he would be entering the race in less than peak form.
“I got bite by some dirty insect,” the Czech racer said with a slight accent; the crowd laughed assuming he was joking but he added, “I spent the last two days in bed.”
Koenig proceeded to explain he’d had a fever leading up to Sunday’s press conference, apparently as a result of the bite. While he’d hoped to contend with van Garderen and Danielson, Koenig said he’s tapered his expectations as a result of the illness, but he was still excited to participate.
“It’s the last race in the U.S. I haven’t done.”
It will be interesting to see how he holds up on the fast-paced Aspen Circuit course during Day 1 of the competition Monday.
While Koenig appeared to be noticeably under the weather, van Garderen — coming off of a fifth-place finish in this year’s Tour de France — and Danielson — who just won the Tour of Utah for the second consecutive year — both appeared poised and ready to race. Van Garderen said he was excited to start the race in his own backyard this year. Last year he had just moved from Boulder to Aspen prior to the race so he, his wife Jessica and their daughter could be closer to her family.
“It’s pretty cool starting in my hometown,” van Garderen said. “Just this morning I went on a training ride with my boys. We did a lap and a half of the circuit. My house is just right off the circuit, so we rolled into my house and Jessica had lunch waiting for us ... Me and my team were just playing with my dog and my little girl. It was a lot of fun.”
Commenting on the course, Danielson said he was once again happy to be racing in his home state, adding that this year’s route looks especially challenging.
“It’s definitely the hardest one organizers have made. Really to win this race you have to be an overall rider.”
He said this year’s course will be a good fit for the riding style — better than year’s past — but that it also caters to van Garderen’s skill set.
While each stage offers its own unique challenges, Danielson said Stage 2’s route over Kebler and finish in Crested Butte could be decisive, and could likely create separation in the overall standings early. “Usually the guy that wins at Crested Butte is on the podium at the end.”
While not a part of the race in 2013, Crested Butte hosted a stage finish in each of the races first two years — 2011 and 2012. Van Garderen won the stage in 2012.
Not to be outdone, 42-year-old rider Jens Voigt also shared the spotlight at the press conference with his light-hearted attitude.
Voigt, often a fan favorite, announced earlier this year that he plans to retire following the Pro Challenge.
“Everything has to come to an end,” he said, explaining that he wanted to go out on his own terms and not when a team or a sponsor politely decided for him. Voigt joked that it was a joint decision between his mind and his body, with his legs telling him it was time.
He said he chose Colorado because of the fans and the warm reception he’s received here over the years.
Describing Voigt, Trek teammate and 12th place 2014 Tour de France finisher Frank Schleck said, “Ten years ago he was strong and beautiful, today he is only strong.”
Schleck continued to say, “The whole team is going to miss him a lot.”
When asked about the future of the Pro Challenge — now in its fourth year — race CEO Shawn Hunter said it continues to grow and should be a staple of American cycling for years to come. Stage 1 kicks off Monday at 2 p.m. in downtown Aspen. Coverage of each stage of the race will be broadcast on NBCSN and streamed online via www.usaprocyclingchallenge.com.