USA Pro Challenge organizers leave suspense to the last day with 2012 route

Flagstaff Mountain finish and final-stage time trial will keep tension on high in Colorado

The USA Pro Cycling Challenge today released the route for the race’s second edition. After an inaugural parcours that saw the general classification decided four days into the weeklong race, organizers have designed a route that should leave the overall to the final mile of the final-stage time trial in Denver.

The 130-mile, two-climb stage to Aspen, two hilltop finishes at Crested Butte and Beaver Creek, a climbers’ finish at Flagstaff Mountain above Boulder, and the Denver time trial highlight the seven-stage race.

In all, the route covers 680 miles and includes two stages for the climbers, two for the all-rounders, two for sprinters and a time trial specialists’ affair.

“In determining the route for the 2012 USA Pro Cycling Challenge, we wanted to showcase as much of the state as possible, while creating a challenging course for the riders that would provide ideal viewing locations for spectators,” said Shawn Hunter, the race’s CEO. “This year, the route will take the riders through more mountain passes than any other race of its kind, with five topping out at a minimum of 10,000 feet.”

Some fans complained in 2011 that the route was uninspiring and decided the overall standings too early. The new parcours does away with any chance of those complaints and should have riders — and fans — on edge until the final moment.

Stage 1 (August 20): Durango-Telluride — 125 miles
The race’s opening stage will start with three neutral laps in downtown Durango. A five-mile circuit around Durango will end with the first intermediate sprint, at the start line. From there, riders will face the moderate, grinding 30-mile climb to Lizard Head Pass, at 10,222 feet.

A 15-mile descent into the resort town of Telluride should erase any gaps that form on the climb, and the sprinters’ team should take over for one of their few opportunities at a stage win. A technical run-in to the finish will make the finale a touchy affair suited for the crafty finishers.

Stage 2 (August 21): Montrose-Mount Crested Butte — 99 miles
The race returns to the hill-top finish above Crested Butte again in 2012, but with a partially new approach from the west. Two moderate climbs, at Cerro and Blue Mesa Summits, lead to the Gunnison River and the flat, wind-swept approach to Gunnison. From there, riders turn north onto familiar roads toward Crested Butte.

In 2011, now-UnitedHealthcare teammates Jay Thomson and Brad White rode together up Highway 135 in strong winds before the peloton pulled them back for the final, three-mile ramp to the finish. Andy Schleck jumped early on the climb and immediately felt the pressure of the altitude, slipping out the back of the lead group as Levi Leipheimer surged for the stage win in the final meters. This finish will provide the first glimpse of how riders approach the race differently in 2012, after having tested the waters at high altitude once before.

Stage 3 (August 22): Gunnison-Aspen — 130 miles
The queen stage of the race’s inaugural edition is back in 2012. The route from Gunnison again takes in the Cat. 1 climbs of Cottonwood Pass (12,071 feet) and Independence Pass (12,046 feet). Cottonwood Pass will challenge riders with 12 miles of mostly dirt roads early in the stage. After a nasty crash low on the climb, the peloton rolled a moderate pace over the summit in 2011, but Tom Danielson later speculated that sheep manure picked up on the dirt road led to gastroenteritis that ended his hopes for the overall title.

After what will likely be a wind-buffeted, uphill approach from Buena Vista, The 20-mile Independence Pass climb leads to a technical descent to the finish. A headwind limited attacks on the climb last year and Tejay van Garderen and George Hincapie (both now with BMC Racing) were among the riders to attack in horrible weather on the descent to take the overall lead and win the stage, respectively.

Without the headwind, aggressive riders will likely go on the attack early, but remain careful not to overextend themselves as they approach 12,000 feet above sea level. A rider can lose the race in Aspen, but it likely won’t be won there.

Stage 4 (August 23): Aspen-Beaver Creek — 97 miles
The fourth stage offers up an early ride over the more challenging west side of Independence Pass, which riders descended the day before. The 15-mile climb tops out at nine-percent gradient and comes just three miles from the start. From the summit, riders will descend 20 miles to Twin Lakes before the long, moderate slog to the summit of Tennessee Pass at 10,424 feet elevation.

After a mostly downhill, escape from the pass, the ascent of Battle Mountain at mile 80 is a launch pad for a late attack before the 2.5-mile finish climb at Beaver Creek. The Beaver Creek finish is new for 2012 and should play out similarly to the Crested Butte finale, setting the table for an explosive uphill finisher in the vein of Simon Gerrans.

Stage 5 (August 24): Breckenridge-Colorado Springs — 117 miles
A 10-mile climb to the summit of Hoosier Pass from the start line will deliver riders to a mostly-downhill approach to Colorado Springs, home of the race’s prologue in 2011. The finish in downtown Colorado Springs should be a sprinters’ affair, but a detour through the Garden of the Gods could see a late move escape. A late breakaway will have to hold off the peloton over three mostly flat finish circuits, however, which is unlikely.

As one of only two potential bunch finishes, the sprinters’ teams will be motivated to hold the race together in the hometown of the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Cycling. But given the fact that just two stages suit the fast men, it is unclear which sprinters will be at the start, especially with the world championships looming weeks later.

Stage 6 (August 25): Golden-Boulder — 103 miles
The highly anticipated sixth stage should see the largest crowds in the event’s history with a mountain finish above Boulder. The stage will open with two laps around Golden before heading north along the hilly and often windy Highway 93 to Boulder. The day’s first KOM climb will take riders up the moderate, 15-mile ascent of Boulder Canyon to the eclectic town of Nederland. The race willfollow the Peak-to-Peak Highway north over a series of rollers before descending to Lyons and turning south toward Boulder. The descent isn’t steep enough to provide much respite.

Two tough climbs face riders in the final 20 miles. First, the moderate ascent of Lefthand Canyon leads to the 1.3-mile climb of Lee Hill Road, which tops out above 10-percent gradient, and a steep descent to Boulder. From downtown Boulder, riders will climb gradually past the University of Colorado to the base of Flagstaff Mountain. From there, the finish lies atop a 3.25-mile, 7.5-percent climb to the Sunrise Amphitheater. Two steep ramps, one low on the climb, just above Gregory Canyon, and the other a half-mile from the finish, should see the hottest fireworks from riders trying to force a selection before the final-day time trial.

The stage will not finish on the summit of Flagstaff Mountain because organizers could not fit the finish infrastructure there, but with Lee Hill and the finish climb packed so near the line, big time gaps could form, particularly if the wind is friendly to the aggressors. Flagstaff is one of the iconic climbs of Colorado Front Range and with a party atmosphere in Boulder, the many local professionals, including Tom Danielson and Rory Sutherland, will look to light it up.

Stage 7 (August 26): Denver ITT — 9.5 miles
The short, final-day time trial will follow a circuit that starts and finishes at Civic Center Park in downtown Denver, site of the 2011 finale. The mostly-flat route will navigate the Speer Boulevard loop used in the final stage of the 2011 race before traveling east to the Denver Zoo and City Park and then returning to the Capitol. The route should suit the TT specialists, but a week at altitude will play a significant, though uncertain, role in the stage results.