Preview: The 2012 USA Pro Challenge starts hard and finishes harder

Velo's Matthew Beaudin and Liquigas-Cannondale's Timmy Duggan take us through the route of the 2012 USA Pro Challenge

Editor’s note: Reporter Matthew Beaudin and Liquigas-Cannondale pro Timmy Duggan have teamed up to provide a preview of the 2012 USA Pro Challenge, which kicks off Monday in Durango.

Stage 1

Monday, August 20

Durango to Telluride

125.5 miles, 9,238 feet of total climbing

TELLURIDE, Colorado (VN) — Organizers of the second USA Pro Challenge have skipped the prologue this year in favor of a road race, and they drew up a classic stage for opening day.

Stage 1 leaves the cycling mecca of Durango after a 5-mile loop around town, where a steep climb to Hesperus awaits. The bunch will then descend gradually into Dolores, a small town tucked into a beautiful red-rock canyon.

That’s where the fun stops for the riders: From there, it’s about a gradual 50-mile slog to the top of 10,222-foot Lizard Head Pass. At 110 miles into the day, the elevation will serve as a rude welcome for a peloton that’s adjusting to racing at altitude.

After the leaders crest Lizard Head (its name is derived from a unique rock formation visible from the road) they will descend, but only briefly before enduring one more climb, locally known as Ophir Hill. It’s a short effort for the group, but the climb to Alta Lakes Road comes near the end of a long day in the saddle, and could very well launch the winning move, as it’s less than 10 miles to the finish line in the old mining town-turned-ski town of Telluride.

There, the field will have to negotiate four turns in the final mile, notably a very sharp right hander about 250 meters from the finish, near the town’s historic courthouse. It’s a slight uphill drag, and the day as a whole and technical final mile will reward a versatile all-rounder.

This won’t be the day that the GC is made, but it is the day when the legs will start to soften. Look for a rider like Rory Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare) in this one. Sutherland won a similarly lumpy stage at last week’s Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. Liquigas-Cannondale’s Damiano Caruso could pull off something special also.

Duggan calls the kickoff “one of the easier stages, but certainly not easy,” and says Lizard Head Pass could cause the first split in GC. But if the bunch gets distracted by the scenery, he adds, the stage could end “in a rather large bunch sprint.”

Stage 2

Tuesday, August 20

Montrose to Crested Butte

99.2 miles, 8,049 feet of climbing

Stage 2 rolls out of Montrose and quickly hits the slopes of Cerro Summit and then the Blue Mesa climb, two short but steep ascents that will launch a breakaway if one hasn’t already established itself. The route hugs the Blue Mesa Reservoir, which is known to be windy, meaning the GC men will be at full attention, even on the race’s shortest day.

The first sprint line of the day comes in Gunnison, home to Western State Colorado University, and then the route takes a turn toward Crested Butte, a tiny ski town amid massive peaks and a yawning valley. A final sprint line awaits in town, but so does a two-mile climb to the finish, at the base of the ski area.

It was here that Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack-Nissan) first asserted himself last year, laying the groundwork for his overall win. The climb isn’t long enough to cause true damage on the general classification, but it is formidable in that it may indeed allow the tone to be set for the rest of the week.

It’s hard to pick against Leipheimer given his form on a tough climbing stage in Utah a week ago, but keep an eye on BMC’s Tejay van Garderen, too. One dark horse may be American Joe Dombrowksi (Bontrager-Livestrong), who nearly got himself a stage win in Utah as well, on the Snowbird climb.

Duggan expects a “pretty cruisy” stage until the short climb to Crested Butte, which he predicts will be an all-out sprint. “The race won’t be won here,” he adds, “but it certainly can be lost.” Stage 2 also should provide the first indication of who among the overall contenders has adapted to elevation, says Duggan.

Stage 3

Wednesday, August 22

Gunnison to Aspen

130.5 miles, 9,623 feet of climbing

This is hands down one of the most difficult days of racing on American soil, as it forces the field to ascend two of the highest passes in professional racing. This 131-mile queen stage is the longest in the race, and will have a say in the general classification.

After a gentle climb to Taylor Park Reservoir, the pavement ends and the peloton must contend with 14 miles of dirt. The 12,126-foot summit of Cottonwood Pass awaits. The field will then drop down to the sprint line in Buena Vista before tackling another monster, the 12,000-foot summit of Independence Pass before a fast descent into Aspen. These climbs will be absolutely packed, and at this elevation, anything is possible weather wise.

The general classification by the end of the day will reveal the riders who can win in Colorado, and it’s reasonable to think that one of them will win the day as well

The climbs suit a rider like Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan), though the descent off the final climb into Aspen means the finale will suit a rider who climbs well and descends even better.

You guessed it: Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) has to be favored to win the day.

Depending on his form and ambitions, BMC’s Cadel Evans may be right there, too, though it’s most likely he’ll help his teammate van Garderen win the overall.

BMC’s George Hincapie won this stage last year in the driving rain, and a hunch says the proud American, who will end his storied career after this race, wants to go out on a high note.

Last year, Duggan recalls, the peloton was reluctant to race all out until the final kilometers of Independence Pass. “In the 2012 edition, I think we will see some more aggressive racing earlier as the peloton is more familiar with the demands of racing at 12,000 feet,” he says.

And yeah, bring your heavy-weather gear. Says Duggan: “The weather can always be a factor that high, and rain, wind — even hail or snow — could greet us on the mountain before dropping into Aspen.”

Stage 4

Thursday, August 23

Aspen to Beaver Creek

97.2 miles, 7,740 feet of climbing

The peloton won’t be happy to confront Independence Pass for the second time in two days, but they must, and this time it comes right away.

The climb will be an absolute zoo, with a finish-like atmosphere early in the day. The main field will be weary from climbing at altitude, and the GC ranks will have been worked over the day before, meaning there should be clear-cut order. It will be up to the leader’s team to control the race and put the squeeze on any threatening breakaways.

Plenty of today’s 90-plus miles are at 9,000 feet and above, offering little rest for the weary. There’s a sprint line in Leadville, the loftiest incorporated city in the country, at 10,152 feet above sea level. The peloton will crest Tennessee Pass (and the Continental Divide) before barreling into Minturn, then head up a 2.5-mile climb to the ski resort of Beaver Creek.

This is a stage whose finish resembles the one in Crested Butte and will suit a rider with a good kick after a climb. A Garmin-Sharp rider (or a few) could be in the mix here, and so could any of the other GC contenders. If the time gaps are tight, this could be an all-out war between the likes of van Garderen, Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp), Leipheimer and Horner.

“Climbing back over Independence Pass first thing on this stage is gonna hurt,” says Duggan. “Any tired riders are really going to have to dig deep to make it over in a group because it’s a long way to Beaver Creek.”

He doesn’t expect big time gaps at the finish, but warns that critical seconds are definitely at risk. “Look for a climber who has a good sprint on him to win this stage,” Duggan predicts.

Stage 5

Friday, August 24

Breckenridge to Colorado Springs

117.9 miles, 5,538 feet of climbing

Finally, say the sprinters — a day for us.

After a tough few days in the mountains, it’s highly likely that the team in control of the general classification will be eager to allow a break with the right riders to stay away. It’s also likely that a sprinter’s team will be angling to make something happen on the long drag into Colorado Springs because, after the 10-mile climb to the top of the 11,500-foot Hoosier Pass early in the stage, it’s mostly downhill.

The peloton will race through Woodland Park, then down a very fast highway into Colorado Springs. The run-in to the finish through the stunning Garden of the Gods is slightly uphill and will serve as a reminder of last year’s prologue before a series of high-speed circuits through downtown Colorado Springs.

The finale will favor a strong sprinter who is able to conserve energy on the day’s early climb and still have the legs left to punch it. Garmin-Sharp’s Tyler Farrar stands a good chance on this day.

Despite the largely downhill profile, Duggan thinks a bunch sprint may not be inevitable. “With a twisty and undulating route through the Garden of the Gods in the final part of the race,” he says, “look for a breakaway to just barely stay away on this stage.”

Stage 6

Saturday, August 25

Golden to Boulder

103.3 miles, 10,030 feet of climbing

When the route was first announced, this was the stage everyone talked about. Last year, Golden provided some of the largest crowds of the entire race and Boulder is perhaps the most cycling-crazed town in the country, with nearly as many bikes (93,000) as it has people (102,500). Pair that with 10,000 feet of climbing that ends on the iconic Flagstaff Mountain and this is a stage that is flat-out madness.

The race begins in Golden and works its way toward Boulder and the first sprint line of the day on the Pearl Street Mall. From there, it’s a 15-mile haul up Boulder Canyon to Nederland, where the field will meet up with the legendary Peak to Peak Highway.

The field will roll through Lyons, then to Left Hand Canyon and Lee Hill. Then, it’s through “the Hill” and up to Flagstaff, where a 3.5-mile climb that covers 1,200 feet in elevation gain awaits. Flagstaff will be packed with people, and one of the Boulder boys will want to throw down on home turf.

One thing that’s certain — Garmin-Sharp’s Danielson will turn himself inside out to do something special here. He’s said Flagstaff is his favorite climb in the world. The stakes will be as high as they’ve ever been in Boulder. Anyone who’s in the GC conversation will have to be near the front of the group as it climbs toward Flagstaff. To miss a move on Flag’ will likely end hopes for the overall.

Says Duggan: “The hardest stage, and it comes at the end of the week.” He expects a major selection on Lee Hill before the race hits the fan-flooded slopes of Flagstaff Mountain.

Stage 7

Sunday, August 26

Denver time trial

9.5 miles, 250 feet of climbing

What the mountains sorted out, it’s likely the Denver time trial will seal and deliver.

The course itself is technical enough, with plenty of sharp turns as it runs near the Capitol building and Civic Center Park. The downtown-area route means crowds will be massive, and it’s possible that the race won’t yet have a clear winner when the riders roll off the start ramp.

Americans Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing) and teammate van Garderen will be looked at as favorites on this day, and it’s possible van Garderen will be racing for the overall against the likes of Leipheimer, Nibali and Garmin-Sharp riders Danielson and Christian Vande Velde. And TT specialist Dave Zabriskie (Garmin-Sharp) could easily win the final stage.

“Look for the GC to still be fairly tight,” says Duggan. ” The time gaps should be small enough that we won’t know who has nailed down a spot on the overall podium until the very last rider.

“Anybody who has been going well on the climbs all week is going to have to showcase an equivalent strength in a flat and fast TT through Denver to clinch the overall.”