Course Preview: Altitude and opportunities define 2013 USA Pro Challenge

With no iconic mountaintop finishes, the racing in Colorado should be aggressive and tight, and may come down to 16 kilometers on Vail Pass

TELLURIDE, Colo. (VN) — In the distance, his lime green kit popped off the browned landscape.

Is that? The red stripe up the torso sealed it.

It was Peter Sagan (Cannondale), pedaling down a lonely stretch of Colorado highway, between Twin Lakes and Leadville, in the middle of a training ride over Independence Pass, twice, from Aspen to Leadville and back.

Sagan, of course, is racing the USA Pro Challenge come Monday, and tuning his form at altitude before his first crack at the big Colorado race.

Altitude, speaking of, is the race’s defining feature in 2013 because, at first blush at least, the parcours lacks the type of stages that generally break the general classification into pieces. This is a race that will likely be won in similar fashion as Garmin-Sharp’s Tom Danielson at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah: Calculated opportunism, and ability to strike at high altitude.

What? That doesn’t sound like cycling rocket science? That sounds easy to do? It won’t be, because the course itself is not remarkably difficult. Racers will have to race all week, rather than sit in and strike once big. Remember what Garmin did last year on the first stage, from Durango to Telluride? The Colorado-based UCI ProTeam attacked so hard that Dave Zabriskie threw up off the side of his bike, and Danielson was up the road all day, only brought back in the stage’s final kilometers.

You know what they say: Racers make the race. They say that for a reason, and Colorado will hold true to the mantra. Here’s how the seven days and 1,100 kilometers could go down. But of course, there’s another classic bike-racing saying, and we’d be remiss to ignore it.

Anything can happen.

Stage 1: Aspen/Snowmass circuit 106km
The peloton will cover the Aspen/Snowmass circuit, 35km in length, three times, for a short, 106km day. Clearly, it’s not a long stage, but it does climb 9,000 or so feet, at 8,000 feet in elevation. This is not a GC-winning day, and will likely see a large group come to the line together, with sprint teams looking for a result (Sagan is a favorite on this day) and the overall riders just looking to manage their fates. With no time bonuses, this should be the first of three fiery finales to open the race, and the leader’s jersey could change hands each day.

Stage 2: Aspen — Breckenridge 202km
This is a mountainous affair from Aspen to Breckenridge that includes two major passes, in Independence and Hoosier. There is another climb toward the finish — the 15-percent Moonstone Road in Breckenridge — but the race ends after a downhill. Small time could be taken up Moonstone and down its technical descent — especially if afternoon rain falls — but it is again unlikely that a top-tier rider will get away and stay away on stage 2.

Danielson won by the skin of his jersey last year over Independence Pass into Aspen, surviving from a move he launched remarkably early. It’s worth noting that a big GC move is possible, but not likely, even though the stage is 202km long and climbs more than 12,000 feet in elevation. Expect attacks near the finish from stage hunters and GC men alike here, but the gaps should be limited to seconds, not minutes. Garmin may employ the pandemonium tactic, forcing BMC Racing — the home of one of the pre-race favorites in Tejay van Garderen — to chase.

Stage 3: Breckenridge — Steamboat Springs 170km
This has drag race written all over it. Sure, there’s a long climb up Rabbit Ears Pass’ eastern grade, but there are also 20 miles of wide, high-speed downhill for the peloton to hunt down anyone up the road. The contenders will likely hesitate to touch the wind with so much downhill real estate before the finish, and the sprint teams will be looking for a result in Steamboat, as Cannondale’s Elia Viviani notched two years ago in the ‘Boat. Likely, it’ll be another Cannondale rider this year fighting for the win.

Stage 4: Steamboat Springs — Beaver Creek 165km
This is the race’s queen stage, and one with a very sharp uphill finish, meaning this is where the overall will begin to be sorted a day before the uphill time trial at Vail Pass. The stage rolls from Steamboat to Oak Creek on rolling back roads that should launch an early break, though this one is bound to come back together, as the teams with GC ambitions ratchet up pressure at the front of the race as it begins to kick up from the Colorado River in State Bridge.

There are actually two climbs near the finish, one of which, Bachelor Gulch, has grades of up to 18 percent, before sending riders downhill, and then back up again for about 2km to the finish in Beaver Creek. Odds are that the best climbers go clear on Bachelor Gulch, then fight for the stage and leader’s jersey on the short but demanding final climb. If the Colombians like Tour of Utah second runner-up Janier Acevedo (Jamis-Hagens Berman) and Darwin Atapuma (Colombia) go on the attack at Bachelor Gulch, it will force anyone with hopes for the GC to go hard the day before the lung-searing Vail TT.

Stage 5: Vail Pass time trial 16km
This classic route was previously used in the Coors Classic and also in the first edition of the Pro Challenge. It climbs 1,694 feet in 16km, and is essentially a race of two halves: the relatively flat opening 8km and the steep final 8km. As it did in 2011, the Vail Pass TT will go a long way to deciding the final GC. Van Garderen lost the leader’s jersey here to Leipheimer, with Christian Vande Velde (Garmin) finishing second, tied to the second with the eventual overall winner.

Equipment choice will be key in Vail. In 2011, Vande Velde rode a standard road bike with aero bars; Leipheimer rode a traditional TT setup. They essentially traded time over each half, with the 0.58 advantage going to Leipheimer at the finish. Expect a similarly packed results sheet on Friday.

Stage 6: Loveland — Fort Collins 185km
This is the last-chance saloon for anyone with GC hopes, though the way this one is laid out, any time taken here will likely have to come from a team-orchestrated effort. After the early breakaway likely jumps clear near Windsor, the stage climbs gradually up Devil’s Gulch for the race’s last KOM atop the 15-plus-percent ramp above Glen Haven before reaching the summer vacation town of Estes Park, the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Then it’s down Big Thompson Canyon, with six ramps around Horsetooth Reservoir providing the final shot at GC glory.

Those who live in the area have billed this stage, which climbs nearly 12,000 feet, as a potential barnburner, but the wind will likely determine just how aggressively the racing plays out. A solid headwind down Big Thompson Canyon or across the reservoir could turn a tailor-made breakaway route into a day for the strong sprinters like Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing).

Stage 7: Denver circuit 116km
The sprinters will have the final stage all their own, in the form of a 116km race around Denver. The nearly dead flat trip through Denver will be very fast, and hit some of the city’s highlights: Lower Downtown, City Park, and Civic Center Park. This will amount to a fight for the stage, of course, but also a victory lap for the man in the leader’s jersey. Who will it be? Time and the thin Colorado air will tell.