Amid lean times on the North American pro scene, Colorado Classic is a key opportunity to earn results.

VAIL, Colorado (VN) — There’s a sense of urgency buzzing through the North American peloton at this week’s Colorado Classic. For many riders, the four-day race represents one final opportunity to score a major result before the season’s end.

“Some guys took a rest before Colorado but not me because this is the last race of the season,” said Serghei Tvetcov of UnitedHealthcare. “When I want a rest, I rest after this.”

The approaching off-season comes unseasonably early this year. In the past riders often looked to September’s Tour of Alberta and Bucks County Classic as the official end to the season. That’s not the case this year, with Alberta shuttering after the 2017 edition and the Bucks County Classic downgrading to a one-day criterium devoid of UCI classification. North America’s WorldTour squads will compete in September’s WorldTour events in Quebec City and Montreal, however, those races do not allow Pro Continental teams to compete without an invitation.

Rally Pro Cycling is the only lower-tier North American team to have received an invitation for the 2019 edition of those events.

There are also two races remaining on USA Cycling’s Pro Road Tour, the Gateway Cup race in Missouri and the Thomson Criterium in Pennsylvania. Neither race holds UCI standing.

The Colorado Classic has benefitted from this shifting dynamic. It now holds a higher level of importance within the North American calendar.

“Utah and Colorado are the second- and third-biggest races for us now,” said Jonas Carney, performance manager for Rally Cycling. “It’s become a major priority for our team.”

This year the four-day race holds 2.HC standing within the UCI, which puts it on level standing with the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, Tour of Denmark, and Arctic Race of Norway, among other races. The race’s close proximity to the Tour of Utah has also attracted a smattering of WorldTour squads, lured by UCI points and the presence of media. In addition to U.S.-based Team EF Education First-Drapac, Mitchelton-Scott, LottoNL-Jumbo, and Trek-Segafredo are in attendance at this year’s event.

And the race’s short, punchy stages, and six-man teams has created an unpredictable format that is unlike what is found at other road races.

“For me, [Colorado] is as important as the [Amgen Tour of] California,” said TJ Eisenhart (Holowesko-Citadel). I prefer this more aggressive style of racing. You’re not doing those 200km days that just drag on. There’s not one team that can control the racing.”

Axel Merckx, director of the Hagens Berman Axeon U23 development team, said the Colorado race has become an important proving ground for his team’s younger, less-experienced riders. This year Axeon’s veteran riders targeted the Amgen Tour of California as well as stage races and one-day events across Europe. The team’s younger riders, however, have had fewer opportunities to race, due to the dwindling U.S. calendar.

“The amount of races in the U.S. is now very poor and for those [younger] guys it gives them the opportunity to race at a pretty high level. Not the highest, but a pretty high level,” Merckx said. “It’s a valuable place to have a race for us.”

Merckx said Colorado’s spot on the calendar does create drawbacks. The Tour of Utah is perhaps the most challenging event in the U.S. with, soaring climbs at high altitude. The tight turnaround between Utah and Colorado — riders had just four days to rest and recover between races — has left many riders with tired legs this week.

“I understand and recognize that [the schedule] is about keeping the WorldTour teams over here — if you added a week of rest then the WorldTour teams may not want to stay,” Merckx said. “Right now 10 days of racing in two weeks is not ideal. The guys only have two days of real rest due to travel.”

Indeed riders looked exhausted as they trickled across the line after Thursday’s opening circuit race in Vail. The course included multiple punchy climbs at 8,000 feet of elevation.

The effort was too much for Colorado native Keegan Swirbul (Jelly Belly-Maxxis), who was gapped off the back and finished more than a minute down Thursday. It was an unusual finish for Swirbul, who finished seventh overall at the Tour of Utah and is one of the country’s best up-and-coming climbers.

The 22-year-old said the combined effort of Utah and Colorado was simply too much for his tired legs.

“I’m messed up. I talked to a few guys who were out there fighting every day in Utah and they said they’re messed up too,” Swirbul said. “It’s hard. You think you’d be able to recover but Utah is just so hard. It catches up with you.”