Leipheimer will have a hard time defending his title against fellow Americans

BOULDER, Colo. (VN) — When the stage 3 Vail time trial prematurely ended the race for overall victory at the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge in August, it was obvious that the organizers would love to see a more dramatic outcome in 2012. And that looks certain to happen on the likely course that was leaked to two Denver news outlets Thursday evening (and later confirmed by the promoter).

Instead of a prologue and a mid-race TT, the second edition of the Colorado stage race, now upgraded to UCI 2.HC status on the America Tour, has just one time trial, and that will be on the final day in Denver. Even after six road stages that crisscross the Rockies — perhaps with a mountaintop finish on the penultimate stage in Boulder — the race won’t be decided until the Denver time trial.

Defending champion Levi Leipheimer will again be a favorite. But his move to the Belgium squad that has merged the Omega Pharma and Quick Step teams, neither of which has a great legacy in stage racing, will weaken his chance of a repeat win. Also, the likely flat TT won’t favor him, especially compared with this year’s test up Vail Pass.

2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge, stage 3
Leipheimer on the way to first place in stage 3 of the 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

Among those Leipheimer will have to keep his eye on are his former teammate Chris Horner, absent in 2011 because of injury, who will be inspired in his first shot at the Challenge, especially if he has the support of new teammates Andy and Fränk Schleck on the realigned RadioShack-Nissan squad.

The other protagonists at next year’s race should include the 2011 runners-up Christian Vande Velde and Tejay Van Garderen. Vande Velde and his Colorado-based teammates Tom Danielson and Peter Stetina will have extra incentive with the last road stage finishing in their Garmin-Cervélo team’s hometown of Boulder. Meanwhile, former HTC rider Van Garderen, from nearby Fort Collins, will have the support of a much-strengthened BMC Racing squad that might well include this year’s top-10 finishers George Hincapie and Cadel Evans.

The Americans Leipheimer, Horner, Vande Velde, Danielson and Van Garderen all have an advantage on their European rivals because of Colorado’s high altitude. The elevations of the first four stage finishes are 8,750 feet (Telluride), 9,375 feet (Mount Crested Butte), 7,890 feet (Aspen) and 8,100 feet (Beaver Creek Resort), while the three Front Range stage finishes are all between 5,000 and 6,000 feet — and around 7,000 feet if a summit finish above Boulder is included.

The strongest challengers to the home riders might well come from South America, especially if the leading Colombians, who live in the Andes, are on the start line in Durango on August 20. Sergio Henao, who came second to Leipheimer on this year’s Crested Butte stage, has now joined Team Sky — and should the British team get an invite to Colorado Henao would have great support from his new Colombian teammate Rigoberto Uran.