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Five riders to watch at the 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge

BOULDER, Colo. (VN) — Nearly 140 riders will start the USA Pro Cycling Challenge next Monday, but only one can win. Here’s a look at five that pose the biggest threat to take victory in Denver.

2011 Tour de France, stage 21, Cadel Evans
Cadel Evans is the first Australian to win the Tour de France. AFP Photo

BOULDER, Colo. (VN) — Nearly 140 riders will start the USA Pro Cycling Challenge next Monday, but only one can win. Here’s a look at five that pose the biggest threat to take victory in Denver.

Cadel Evans (Australia, BMC Racing)

A mountain-bike racing prodigy during his teenage years, the 34-year-old reigning Tour de France champion is enjoying a renaissance during the second half of his road-racing career.

After second-place finishes at the 2007 and 2008 Tours, Cadel Evans was perceived as a talented stage racer who was more prone to following than attacking, and wholly incapable of closing the deal at the biggest races. The reality, however, was that Evans had been hampered both by crashes that were no fault of his own, and by a Lotto team that was not purpose-built for supporting a Tour contender.

Things turned around quickly for Evans beginning with the 2009 world road championship in Switzerland, where the Aussie launched a thrilling, perfectly timed attack in the final kilometers, surprising the favorites and holding them off on a grueling uphill finish. His prize was the world champion’s rainbow jersey, and he defended it with honor in 2010, racing valiantly with his new BMC Racing team. He won the one-day classic Fleche Wallonne, and placed fifth at the Giro d’Italia, where he won a rainy, muddy stage and held the race lead for two days. He went on to wear the yellow jersey at the 2010 Tour de France for a day, but on the same day that he’d earned the jersey he’d gone down in a pile-up and broken his elbow. His Tour dream was, once again, over.

The 2011 season has been Evans’ best yet. He chose to come into the season with fewer racing days, opting out of the Giro, and instead focused on select stage races. He won the Italian stage race Tirreno-Adriatico, with a stage win, won Switzerland’s Tour de Romandie (for a second time in his career), and placed second overall at the Tour warm-up Critérium du Dauphiné.

In July Evans took the biggest prize of his career, the top podium step at the Tour de France, with a near-perfect race. He avoided the crashes that marred the first week of the race, he stayed on top of the pre-race favorites in the mountains, he took the initiative to chase down dangerous moves, and he delivered a demonstrative time trial that proved he was the strongest of the overall contenders. It was the crowning achievement not only of the 2011 season, but also of a bike-racing career that began nearly two decades earlier.

Andy Schleck (Luxembourg, Leopard-Trek)

2011 Tour de France stage 18
Schleck won stage 18 of the Tour with a long breakaway. AFP Photo

Depending on your perspective, Andy Schleck‘s Tour de France performances have been either extremely successful, or somewhat disappointing. Touted as the biggest stage-race talent of his generation, he holds the dubious distinction as the only rider to have ever finished second overall for three consecutive years; he has also only finished worse than second once, at his first Tour, in 2008, when he finished 12th behind his CSC teammate Carlos Sastre.

Fortunately, Schleck is as calm and laid back as they come — he’s been chastised by team management for playing poker with team mechanics past curfew — and the 26-year old climbing specialist realizes that his time to wear yellow in Paris is inevitable.

First, however, he’ll need to improve on his time-trialing skills; he lost both the 2010 and 2011 Tours due to his inferiority racing against the clock. Fortunately for Schleck, the USA Pro Cycling Challenge time trial is an uphill affair, which may just suit his strengths to perfection.

Fränk Schleck (Luxembourg, Leopard-Trek)

2011 Tour de France, stage 17
Fränk Schleck, the Luxembourg national champion, finished third at the Tour. Photo: Graham Watson | grahamwatson.com

Third place at the 2011 Tour de France was a career best for the elder of the Schleck brothers, a climbing specialist who has won major stage races such as the 2009 Tour of Luxembourg, the 2010 Tour of Switzerland, and the 2011 Critérium International. Schleck placed fifth overall at the Tour in 2008 and 2009, but was forced to abandon the race last year after he broke his collarbone on a stage that traversed the cobblestone roads used at the Paris-Roubaix spring classic.

Though he’s admitted that he’s not the natural talent that his younger brother is, together the Schleck brothers, who are close friends, pose a double-pronged threat unlike any other pair in pro cycling.

Tom Danielson (USA, Garmin-Cervélo)

2011 Tour of Utah prologue, photos by Casey B. Gibson
Tom Danielson is a high-altitude climbing specialist who also can time trial. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

A Connecticut native turned Colorado resident, Tom Danielson is a high-altitude climbing specialist who also possesses a dangerous time trial ability. He came to pro cycling via collegiate mountain biking, where he won several national titles. He rose quickly as a road racer, jumping from amateur in 2002 to overall winner of the 2005 Tour de Georgia, riding alongside Lance Armstrong on the Discovery Channel team.

He’s been with the Colorado-based Garmin-Cervélo team since 2008, and though he’s finished in the top 10 at the Vuelta a España three times, Danielson didn’t make his Tour de France debut until 2011, where he was the top-placed American, finishing ninth overall. Living in Colorado has given Danielson the opportunity to scout all the main stages of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, an important advantage when challenging those who beat him on the French mountain climbs in July.

Levi Leipheimer (USA, RadioShack)

2011 Tour of Utah stage 1
Leipheimer attacking on stage 1 of the Tour of Utah. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

A combination top climber and time-trial threat, there are few stage races, international or domestic, where Levi Leipheimer hasn’t left his mark. He’s stood on the final podium at the Tour de France (2007) and the Vuelta a España (2001 and 2008). He won the 2005 Tour of Germany, the 2006 Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré and the 2011 Tour of Switzerland.

Here at home, he spent three consecutive years as the king of the Amgen Tour of California, and in 2010 he won the Tour of Utah racing without a team. His 2011 Tour de France was plagued by crashes and injury, but the cagey 37-year-old veteran is a rider that can never be counted out.