The big one: 2015 USA Pro Challenge welcomes women, its first Summit native and a Breckenridge time trial | SummitDaily.com

The big one: 2015 USA Pro Challenge welcomes women, its first Summit native and a Breckenridge time trial

A new generation of cyclists is thirsty to take over, and it begins at the USA Pro Challenge.

Early on Aug. 14, Pro Challenge officials announced the official start list for the seven-stage road race, held Aug. 17-23 on Colorado's classic cycling routes. For the first time in its five-year history, a handful of top-tier athletes were curiously missing: Levi Leipheimer, the first Pro Challenge champion in 2011 who recently retired after a storied career; Tejay van Garderen, the most-decorated cyclist in race history with wins in 2013 and 2014; Peter Sagan, the Slovakian phenom who, oddly enough, never managed to break the top three despite winning four stages in 2013.

For casual fans, the start list seems a bit disappointing. Even the four major teams will leave their superstars at home, including two-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador with Tinkoff-Saxo.

But, for students of the sport, the Pro Challenge start list is a sneak peak at the future of cycling. In place of Sagan and Leipheimer and van Garderen are dozens of up-and-comers, the sort of international-level cyclists who haven't quite become household names: Australian Rohan Dennis with BMC Racing, U.S. road champ Matthew Busche with Trek Factory Racing, Czech racer Roman Kreuziger with Tinkoff-Saxo, and a slew of other young, hungry riders with top-three and top-10 finishes at races across the globe. Then there are Colorado natives Taylor Phinney, son of cycling legend Davis Phinney, and Taylor Shelden, the first Summit local to earn a spot on the start list.

"Professional cycling is seeing a changing of the guards at the elite level, and we are at its doorstep," USA Pro Challenge CEO Shawn Hunter said. "Rohan Dennis and Taylor Phinney are just two of several young, rising stars of the sport we will see this year."

A tour of Summit

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The only thing standing between this newest crop of pros and household recognition: The Rocky Mountains. Until the final two stages, this year's lineup of 16 men's teams and 12 women's teams face one of the world's most demanding mountain courses, which boasts four passes higher than 9,000 feet and covers a total of 606.5 miles for the men.

And Summit County is largely to blame for this year's lung-burning altitudes. Towns across Summit play host to four stages, including the first-ever finish on the vaunted Loveland Pass route and a brand-new starting line at Copper Mountain.

Before dropping to the relative low of Loveland (4,982 feet) for the start of Stage 6, competitors will tackle Rabbit Ears Pass, Hoosier Pass, Fremont Pass and Independence Pass — not just once, but twice.

"The distance, the elevation climbs, everything foster the best in competition," Hunter said. "They aren't too long — they're short enough that the racing takes place from start to finish each day. The athletes race hard from the first minute after the start to the moment the first racer crosses the finish line."

The first women's field

In a year of firsts — first women's race, first Breck time trial, first dual yellow jerseys — the Pro Challenge is reviving a long-gone Colorado tradition: For the first time since the Coors Classic in 1988, pro male and female cyclists will ride the same roads at the same time in an international cycling event. A total of 12 teams are confirmed for the race, including Colorado Women's Cycling Project and UnitedHealthcare Professional Cycling Team.

Those teams feature the world's top female cyclists, including pros like Olympic medalist Kristin Armstrong and Boulder resident Mara Abbott.

"I'm really excited about the details on our courses," said Abbott, who rides for Team Wiggle Honda. "All of the communities have bent over backwards to be able to put on a good show for the first year of this race, and I'm so honored that they are showing how much they care about women's cycling and giving us this opportunity."

And it gets started right here in Summit County with the Breckenridge time trial.

"That first-ever women's stage in Breckenridge will be magical," Hunter said. "This is bringing some of the best athletes in the world to Colorado and Summit County, and they'll be sharing the same course and the same crowds with the men. It will be a world-class way to launch this endeavor."

Not only are they sharing the same course — they're competing for an equally hefty prize purse. It's an unusual approach for high-level cycling, Hunter says, but organizers wanted to give women the exact same treatment as men, albeit during a shorter overall race.

"It's very rare to have the same course, on the same day, for the same prize money," says Hunter, who notes that organizers have wanted to include a women's race since the first Pro Challenge in 2011. "It's always been our goal to have a big women's division and we waited to launch that until we could do it right. We want to walk before we run, and we think this is a good start."

THE STAGES

Stage 2: Steamboat Springs to Arapahoe Basin

After the opening circuit stage through the Steamboat Springs area, cyclists tackle the first lengthy leg of the Pro Challenge with a 103-mile route from Steamboat to Arapahoe Basin.

While competitors won't quite finish at the top of Loveland Pass — a signature route for just about every cyclist who visits Colorado — they'll end roughly 4 miles short at the Arapahoe Basin base area. It's not as though they're getting off easy: The stage begins with a climb up Rabbit Ears Pass before slowly, slowly gaining elevation until racing reaches a fever pitch on U.S. Highway 6 between Keystone and A-Basin.

"After 90 miles of intense racing, it will be a great finish to introduce that last grueling, demanding climb up Loveland Pass," Hunter said.

Stage 3: Copper Mountain Resort to Aspen

Copper enters the Pro Challenge lineup with a bang, making its debut as the starting line for Stage 3. After leaving the resort village, athletes are thrown into the gauntlet on State Highway 91, with a 2,000-foot climb up and over Freemont Pass before leisurely winding down to Leadville.

Following Freemont, past champions like Levi Leipheimer will recognize the back half of the stage. The route takes cyclists to the top of Independence Pass before dropping into Aspen, which shares honors with Breckenridge as the only town to host a Pro Challenge stage every year since the race's debut.

Stage 4: Aspen to Breckenridge

Just a day after pedaling south from Summit to Pitkin County, cyclists will about-face to make a return journey for Stage 4. The route is slightly different — this stage passes through Buena Vista and Fairplay, along with a second-half push over Hoosier Pass — but it requires yet another trip over Independence Pass.

While the middle routes seem suspiciously similar on paper, Hunter said officials planned the routes based on feedback from international teams. The verdict: Cyclists wanted faster routes, with more mountain passes and shorter distances between stages.

"Summit County deserves a big piece of the race, a big piece of the excitement, but that also comes from the natural construction of the course," Hunter said. "It fit well competitively and logistically, but the bottom line is that Summit County has done an incredible job supporting the race."

Stage 5: Breckenridge individual time trial

Before teams head to the Front Range, cyclists get a final taste of thin mountain air with an individual time trial in and around Breckenridge. It replaces the vaunted Vail Pass time trial, a time-honored route that traces back to the Coors Classic and Red Zinger days in the '80s and early '90s.

With an average elevation of about 9,800 feet — it tops out at 10,088 feet and never drops below 9,600 feet — the 8.5-mile Breckenridge course promises to be unpredictable, beginning with a jagged climb up Moonstone Road on the way to Boreas Pass before a lightning-fast descent to the Main Street finish.

"The fans will be treated to something very special," Hunter said. "From day one, I think that stage will become a classic, not just in terms of the Pro Challenge but in the history of Colorado racing."

2015 USA Pro Challenge stages

For the first time ever, top male and female cyclists will share the same courses at an internaional stage race. Here’s a look at what’s in store:

Men’s stages

Aug. 17 — Stage 1: Steamboat Springs circuit race (98 miles)

Aug. 18 — Stage 2: Steamboat Springs to Arapahoe Basin (103 miles)

Aug. 19 — Stage 3: Copper Mountain Resort to Aspen (101 miles)

Aug. 20 — Stage 4: Aspen to Breckenridge (126 miles)

Aug. 21 — Stage 5: Breckenridge individual time trial (8.5 miles)

Aug. 22 — Stage 6: Loveland to Fort Collins (102 miles)

Aug. 23 — Stage 7: Golden to Denver (68 miles)

Women’s stages

Aug. 21 — Stage 1: Breckenridge individual time trial (8.5 miles)

Aug. 22 — Stage 2: Loveland to Fort Collins (58 miles)

Aug. 23 — Stage 3: Golden circuit (1.5-mile course)

For complete information on each of the race stages, including spectator and lodging information, see http://www.prochallenge.com.

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