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Opening press conference, 2015 USA Pro Challenge,...

USA Pro Challenge: Forget what you think you know, and enjoy the show

Forget what you think you know about this year’s USA Pro Challenge. It’s as wide open a stage race as you’ll watch this season.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colorado (VN) — If there was one main storyline from Sunday’s pre-race press conference for the USA Pro Challenge, which starts Monday in Steamboat Springs, it was this — there is no story. There is no race favorite. There is no defending champion. The two most pivotal stages of the week— a summit finish, and a time trial — are new. Forget what you may think you know about this year’s edition. Forget what you may have read. It’s as wide open a stage race as you’ll watch this season.

With its timing on the calendar, three weeks after the Tour de France, and its extremely high altitudes, the USA Pro Challenge is an event like no other on the professional racing calendar. What might make sense on paper isn’t likely what will happen on the roads of Colorado. Riders that would otherwise be race favorites aren’t always so. Riders that have spent the last few weeks riding at altitude — and racing, at the Tour of Utah — have a distinct advantage.

And what’s more, this year’s race is without a former champion, or any rider from last year’s final podium. In fact, there’s only one rider from the Utah podium — Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing), who several have cited as perhaps the biggest favorite. BMC also has Rohan Dennis and Damiano Caruso in Colorado, yet both riders have been in the States for a week and are struggling with the high altitude. (Steamboat Springs sits at just over 7,000 feet above sea level; the highest point of the race, Independence Pass, is over 12,000 feet, or above 3,650 meters.)

“It’s still affecting me, a fair bit. My heart rate is 10, 20 beats higher sometimes at certain power. My goals for GC here aren’t huge,” Dennis told VeloNews on Saturday. “I’m looking for either a stage, especially the time trial. Maybe, if the opportunity is right, I’ll go up the road, and maybe get a road stage, or get the opportunity to even be in that position.”

Recent Tour of Utah winner Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale-Garmin) is headed to the Vuelta a España, along with teammate Alex Howes, a stage winner in Denver last year. And though the team brings Giro d’Italia stage winner Davide Formolo and 2013 fourth-place Pro Challenge finisher Janier Acevedo, the Colorado-based Cannondale team is putting its GC leadership into the hands of young American Nathan Brown, who finished 11th overall at the Route du Sud in June, won by Alberto Contador.

“I think Nate Brown could surprise some people,” said Cannondale director Charly Wegelius. “He did a really good Giro. He had some nice results at the end of June, at Route du Sud, which is a tune-up race for the Tour, and he’s really applied himself well in July. Sometime before the end of the season, we should see something really good from him. Hopefully it could be here. In the big WorldTour races, he gets pulled into quite anonymous work, so this is a big chance for him.”

Canadian Michael Woods (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies), the runner-up at the Tour of Utah, did not come to the USA Pro Challenge, opting to focus on the Tour of Alberta, the Canadian WorldTour events (with Canadian National Team), and the Richmond world championships. Instead, the team will look to American Phil Gaimon as its GC leader. Though he hasn’t had a major result in Colorado, Gaimon is a two-time winner of the Redlands Classic, and he finished second overall at the 2013 Tour of the Gila.

“On our team, they want everyone to have a shot, so everyone gets to do two of the three big races in this block [Utah, Colorado, Alberta], and no one is doing all of them,” Gaimon said. “Obviously, for Woods, being Canadian, Alberta is a big race, and they have included mountains there this year. Also, there’s a team time trial, rather than an individual time trial, so that suits him; he’s not known for his TT skills yet.”

In 2014, Gaimon rode in a major support role in Utah, delivering former teammate Tom Danielson to victory. This time around, Gaimon rode rather anonymously as his teammates Woods and Eric Young took center stage.

“Utah wasn’t super awesome for me,” Gaimon said. “I had some personal, family health stuff going on that knocked some watts off, real hard, the first couple of days. Hopefully I’m past that now. This race suits me better than Utah, and hopefully the week at Utah will be a good fitness bump. We have a bunch of sprinters here, all-rounders here, so I’ll be just doing my thing, for the most part, for the GC, and trying not to lose any time.”

Tinkoff-Saxo’s Roman Kreuziger, a three-time top-10 finisher at the Tour de France, is back in Colorado — he finished 34th in 2012 — but the Czech rider has been downplaying his chances, posting to Twitter that he’s struggling with jetlag and altitude. His teammate, Chris Anker Sorensen, said Sunday that he would instead look to “the guys coming from Utah,” as GC favorites, adding, “a guy like Brent Bookwalter is not a bad guy to put your money on.”

Trek Factory Racing, the fourth WorldTeam in the race, brings Colombian climber Julian Arredondo, who is just coming off the Tour de France.

“He’s a good climber, he’s talented, and he’s from Colombia, at altitude, though lower altitude than Colorado,” said Arredondo’s teammate Matthew Busche, who crashed heavily on a descent at the Tour of Utah and is still sporting bandages on both elbows and one knee. “He rode the Tour de France, and you never know what that does to your body. If it’s like what happened to me last year, after the Tour, I raced Utah, and I was dead, but coming to the Pro Challenge, that fitness showed up. It’s unknown if he’s still tired or not.”

And while in Arredondo, Kreuziger, and Formolo, it’s possible that this could be the first year of a foreign Pro Challenge winner, in Bookwalter, Brown, and Gaimon, there are three Americans who will contend for victory on home soil. None, however, are proven in Colorado. Unlike in years past when Tejay van Garderen, Christian Vande Velde, Tom Danielson, and Levi Leipheimer showed up on form, all bets are off in terms of racing for the win this year.

“I think it’s exciting,” said Kiel Reijnen (UnitedHealthcare). “It makes for dynamic racing, everyone is very unsure, even within teams, who will do well. Sometimes guys who would normally go for GC end up going for stage wins instead.

“The GC race starts with the climb to Arapahoe Basin [on stage 2], it will be hard for anyone to hide,” he continued. “We’ll see at the top of the climb who is here to make it the whole week. I think it’s the most wide-open race it’s ever been. Every team has someone they’re looking at. Look at Cannondale — Davide Formolo hasn’t really raced at altitude. Generally he’d be a contender, but he doesn’t know how he’ll respond. There are some riders who will come out riding well, there are some who won’t. That’ll remain to be seen. Maybe we’ll see more aggressive tactics, and bigger breakaways making it to the finish. It makes for exciting racing.”

There you have it. Any assumptions are only that — assumptions. All bets are off. This race is wide open, and that’s a good thing. So forget what you think you know — or even what you might have read on this site — and instead, just enjoy the show.