Pro Cycling Challenge: Who will rise to the top? |

Pro Cycling Challenge: Who will rise to the top?

Stephen Lloyd Wood
Special to the daily
AP PhotoCadel Evans of Australia, Nicolas Vogondy of France, left, and Andy Schleck of Luxemburg, right, climb towards l'Alpe-d'Huez during the 17th stage of the Tour de France cycling race between Embrun and l'Alpe-d'Huez, French Alps, July 23, 2008.

Editor’s note: Stephen Lloyd Wood is a freelance journalist and a former staff editor at the Vail Daily. A two-time U.S. national cycling champion, as well, he covered professional cycling in the mid-1990s as European correspondent for VeloNews.

From the moment the first cyclist takes the prologue time-trial course in Colorado Springs on Monday to final sprint to the finish line in Denver six days later, the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge promises to deliver bike racing at a level never seen before in the United States.

Adoring fans at the start lines, of course, will be eyeing the three men with podium pedigree from last month’s Tour de France, Aussie Cadel Evans and the Schleck brothers, Andy and Frank, of Luxembourg. But there are 132 other guys in the race, as well; and in pro cycling, form, fame and fortune are often fleeting, giving way to other factors, such as preparation and, ultimately, motivation.

No doubt Evans, a former world road race champion and the top-ranked rider in the sport, is having a phenomenal season. A former world-class mountain-bike racer, as well, the 34-year-old has proven he can excel on rough roads and descend and time trial with the best. But since winning the Tour, the captain of the BMC Racing team admits he has not raced, or trained, much and his form is questionable. Evans will be counting on support from a relatively inexperienced team, too, though he will have his chief lieutenant, veteran American George Hincapie, by his side.

Much the same can be said for the Schlecks of Leopard-Trek, who’ve laid pretty low since the Tour, their primary objective for the season. If they’ve brought their climbing legs to Colorado, the Luxemburger duo will be dangerous, especially considering the strength of their team, which includes two of pro cycling’s hardest-working domestiques, German Jens Voigt and Australian Stuart O’Grady. More likely, their not one but two Achilles heels – relatively poor time-trialing and descending skills – will haunt them again on the rough road to Cottonwood Pass and the descent of Independence Pass, as well as the time trial at Vail.

Reality is there are two more past Tour podium finishers in the field who came away from this year’s race disappointed and say they are super motivated to bounce back: American Levi Leipheimer of RadioShack, second in 2007; and Italian Ivan Basso of Liquigas-Cannondale, second in 2005.

Many experts are giving Leipheimer, who endured a rash of crashes early in the Tour this year, the nod as the rider most likely to win The Challenge. The 34-year-old is the best domestic stage racer on the road, having won the Tour of California three times; he’s familiar with competing at altitude, having raced, and won, the Leadville 100 mountain-bike race; and he’s back on form, for sure, having fended off a strong field last week to defend his title at the high-altitude Tour of Utah in convincing fashion. Like Evans, however, most of his RadioShack teammates are relatively inexperienced, except for veteran American Jason McCartney.

Basso, meanwhile, was recovering during the Tour from a nasty crash during training in May, but he still managed to finish eighth overall. Once considered the heir to Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France throne before a doping scandal forced him out of competition for two years, the Italian, 33, is still clawing his way back to the phenomenal form that propelled him to overall victories in the 2006 and 2010 Giros d’Italia. Watch for strong support on the climbs from his Polish teammate, Sylvester Szmyd.

More than the three-week grand tours of France, Italy and Spain, one-week stage races often provide huge opportunities, and surprises.

If anyone’s poised to upset the favorites it’s Colorado’s own Tom Danielson. The Durango resident, 33, took third place overall in this year’s Tour of California, then rode sensationally to ninth place overall in the Tour de France, the top American. Danielson has all the tools for overall victory in Denver: He can climb, and time trial; he thrives at high altitude; and he’ll have the full support of perhaps the strongest team in the race, the Boulder-based Garmin-Cervelo squad, which includes American national time-trial champion Dave Zabriskie, veteran stage-race ace Christian Vandevelde and Canadian sensation Ryder Hesjedal.

Other dark horses to watch include: Dutchman Robert Gesink of the Rabobank team; Australian Rory Sutherland of the UnitedHealthcare squad, who lives and trains in Boulder; and two tiny but powerful climbers, Colombian Sergio Henao and Spaniard Oscar Sevilla, both with one of South America’s top teams, Gobernacion de Antioquia.

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