Chris Froome, the winner of the Tour de France, settled into his chair at Paepcke Auditorium in Aspen on Sunday afternoon.
On the same stage that has hosted international dignities for a half-century, Froome added his name to the list that includes world leaders like Margaret Thatcher, George H. Bush, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and Jesse Jackson, among others.
The current king of the peloton, Froome is the reigning No. 1-ranked cyclist in the world coming off his convincing performance in France last month. Not to mention, he won the overall title in the 2013 Tour of Romandie, the overall title in the 2013 Criterium du Dauphine and the overall title in the 2013 Tour of Oman.
“It’s quite an adjustment to the altitude,” Froome said Sunday, surrounded by a cast of other top riders in the USA Pro Challenge at the introductory press conference. “I’ve never done a race at this kind of altitude before.”
The leader of the No. 1-ranked team in cycling, Sky Procycling, Froome is in Colorado for the first time to race in the 2013 USA Pro Challenge, which will begin today with the 60-mile Aspen/Snowmass Circuit Race (1:05 p.m. start).
With a new American sponsor in tow, 21st Century Fox, the powerhouse Sky team will be competing on U.S. roads for the first time.
“We’re going to do what we can to help out our teammates,” Froome said with a nod to Richie Porte, the Tasmanian super-lieutenant to Froome.
Both Froome and Porte, who was seated appropriate just to Froome’s right, talked about supporting their young American teammates in the stage race across Colorado, the biggest race in North America.
“Joe Dombrowski ... he was here last year. We want to help him,” Froome said of the 22-year-old from Virginia, who came through the Bontrager development program.
Dombrowski, Ian Boswell and Danny Pate are Froome’s American teammates on the Sky squad designated for the Colorado race.
But Porte long has been considered the key player in the Sky lineup, supporting Froome, of course.
“After the Tour, we had a pretty good after-party,” Porte said of the all-night celebration in Paris. Porte, despite the party, was back on his bike for a criterium the next evening.
But, he said, he hasn’t ridden a great deal since.
He said he’s not quite up to the form he had in France, which drew a few groans from the other riders on stage, who had watched Porte and Froome control the Tour de France.
“In my current shape, I’m not looking forward to the climbs (in the USA Pro Challenge),” Porte said, adding that he hopes to support the young Americans riding for Sky.
The first of the major climbs for Porte, Froome, Sky and the field of 128 riders will come on Tuesday, Stage 2, from Aspen over Independence Pass and Hoosier Pass to Breckenridge.
First, however, the 16 teams will take on the first Aspen/Snowmass Circuit Race, beginning at 1:05 p.m. today on Main Avenue in downtown Aspen.
After two non-timed parade laps around the downtown portion of the course, including Smugger Avenue in the West End, the cyclists will head out Highway 82 for the left-hand turn at Owl Creek Road.
The 20-mile loop will continue up and down Owl Creek Road to the intersection with Brush Creek Road, just below Snowmass Village.
Cyclists will turn right down Brush Creek before a radical left-hand turn up Medicine Bow Road. From there, they will go to Upper Ranch Road, down across Highway 82, across the Roaring Fork River and back up the W/J hill onto McLain Flats Road.
From there, the cyclists will ride back into Aspen via the climb up Cemetery Lane. After a quick down-and-up at Power Plant Road, the riders will dash down Smuggler Avenue and return to Main via Bleeker and Mill. The finish is at Main and Garmisch.
“We have a fantastic team here,” said Boulder’s Tommy Danielson, who won the 2012 stage of the USA Pro Challenge that finished in downtown Aspen. “And there is quite a strong peloton.”
He said he’ll never forget the stage into Aspen last year when he held off the chasing peloton to record his first USA Pro Challenge win.
“That really was a team effort last year,” Danielson said, again crediting his Garmin-Sharp teammates for his recent overall victory in the 2013 Tour of Utah. “It was a magical moment coming over the finish line (in Aspen).”
The Boulder-based Garmin-Sharp team was credited with launching an aggressive race strategy in the 2012 USA Pro Challenge, pushing the pace at altitude and animating the race.
A similar plot is likely to unfold this year, according to Danielson and teammate Christian Vande Velde, the defending champion in the USA Pro Challenge.
“The USA Pro Challenge ... is the race that is closest to my heart,” Vande Velde said. “It’s fantastic for the fans and the epic climbs.”
He called the Colorado stage race, in its third year, an “insanely successful event.”
Vande Velde, who crashed out of the Tour de France this year, is building back to his pre-France fitness, he said.
“I’m definitely behind compared to last year,” he said. But after “suffering through Utah,” he said he’s excited to ride on a strong Garmin team with any number of overall candidates from Danielson to young Australian Lachlan Morton to upstart Andrew Talansky, who recently finished 10th overall in his first Tour de France. Morton, one of 10 Australians in the field, won a climbing stage in the Tour of Utah this year.
The field for today’s start in Aspen is the most international in the short history of the race. There are 31 countries represented. Forty-seven of the riders are from the United States; 16 are from Colorado.
There are nine Colombians entered in the U.S. race that is heavy on climbing and altitude.
The USA Pro Challenge will close Sunday, Aug. 25, with the Denver Criterium.
“This is the best race I could think of to close out my career,” Vande Velde said.