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USA Pro Challenge preview: Could 2015 be the first year of a foreign winner?

This year's Colorado stage race is wide-open, but it again hinges on a crucial time trial and tough, high-altitude climbing.

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BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — The days are long, and filled with climbs. The air is dry and thin, and it only gets worse as the road pitches up toward the sky. Rocky Mountain vistas are everywhere, but there’s little time to soak in the scenery. The peloton is mixed with WorldTour riders, some coming off the Tour de France, and domestic teams whose entire season can be validated with a stage win.

This is the USA Pro Challenge, which enters its fifth year as “America’s Race,” a weeklong jaunt through the Colorado Rockies that, since 2011, has delivered thrilling high-altitude battles and deserving overall winners.

This year’s edition begins Monday in Steamboat Springs, and wraps up on Sunday, August 23, in Denver.

And this year’s field is wide open, more so than ever. For very different reasons, the top three riders from last year’s USA Pro Challenge — Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), Tom Danielson (Cannondale-Garmin), and Sergei Tvetcov (Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec) — will not be on the start line next week.

There’s also a new time trial route, in Breckenridge, rather than Vail, as well as the addition of an inaugural three-stage women’s event.

Altogether, this year’s Pro Challenge will have a very different feel than in years past. Here’s our look at top riders to watch and the route, for both the men’s and women’s editions.

The riders

Perhaps of paramount importance to American race fans is that there’s a very good chance that, for the first time, a foreign rider could win the overall.

Though van Garderen isn’t competing, his BMC squad is bringing arguably the deepest team, headlined by Australian Rohan Dennis and Italian Damiano Caruso.

Dennis has already had a fantastic 2015 season, with an overall victory at the Santos Tour Down Under, a brief stint as the world hour record holder, and a time trial stage win — and day in the maillot jaune — at the Tour de France. He’s a strong candidate for TT victory on stage 5 in Breckenridge, but whether or not he can keep up with the best climbers at altitude is the question many will be asking at the start in Steamboat Springs.

Like Dennis, Caruso spent July riding in support of van Garderen, just a few months after finishing eighth at the Giro. Will he have recovered from those efforts? Can he climb at high altitude?

BMC will also bring Brent Bookwalter, who was third overall at the Tour of Utah, as well as Taylor Phinney, who returned to racing in Utah after more than a year away from the pro peloton after a terrible leg injury derailed his career. Phinney, a Colorado native, finished third on the opening stage and showed good form throughout the week, adding to the team’s overall firepower.

Other UCI WorldTeams competing are Tinkoff-Saxo, Cannondale-Garmin, and Trek Factory Racing.

Czech rider Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff) has finished in the top 10 of the Tour de France on three occasions, most recently in 2013. He spent July at the Tour de France, riding in support of Alberto Contador. In Colorado, he’ll have free rein to fight for the overall victory.

Though he’s only 22, Italian Davide Formolo (Cannondale) is already a star. His second place at the 2014 Italian national road championship, behind Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), was the first major sign that he was capable of racing at the highest level; his solo stage win at the Giro d’Italia in May confirmed it. In Colorado, he’ll ride as a protected GC leader, though Cannondale will also look to Colombian Janier Acevedo, who finished fourth at the Pro Challenge in 2013.

Trek brings several options. Colombian climber Julian Arredondo was the king of the mountains at the 2014 Giro d’Italia and was the overall winner of the 2013 Tour de Langkawi. He’ll look to support from U.S. national champion Matthew Busche, who recently crashed out of the Tour of Utah.

Among domestic riders to watch are American climber Phil Gaimon (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies), Australian Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly), and Colombian Daniel Jaramillo (Jamis-Hagens Berman.)

The route

For 2015, the men’s Pro Challenge route will visit 16 cities and cover 605 miles over seven stages, two of which stand out as critical for riders aiming to reach the final podium — the summit finish on stage 2, at Arapahoe Basin, and the stage 5 time trial, in Breckenridge.

After an opening circuit race in Steamboat Springs, stage 2 departs Steamboat for three classified climbs, ending with a five-mile ascent up Loveland Pass to Arapahoe Basin for a summit finish at almost 11,000 feet of elevation. The stage winner will likely also take the race lead, requiring his team to defend yellow with five difficult stages remaining.

The almighty Independence Pass, which tops out at 12,095 feet, will be featured on stage 3, from Copper Mountain Resort to Aspen, with a harrowing descent down Independence to the finish line, and again on stage 4, which starts with a climb over Independence before a pair of climbs late in the stage, over Hoosier Pass and then the short, steep Moonstone Road before descending into Breckenridge. Time gaps between the overall favorites shouldn’t be significant on these stages, though anyone who suffers with the altitude on Independence Pass at the end of stage 3 — or the descent — can kiss their GC ambitions goodbye.

In 2011, van Garderen opened up a 34-second gap over Levi Leipheimer on the rainy, 20-mile descent of Independence Pass to take the race lead. In 2013, Australian Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly) attacked on Hoosier Pass, drawing out Swiss rider Mathias Frank. The pair crested Moonstone Road with a one-minute lead, with Frank winning the stage and Morton taking the race lead. Behind them, Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) and van Garderen attacked on Moonstone Road to open a gap on the field.

In three of the four editions of the Pro Challenge, the winner of the time trial has gone on to win the overall. However, for all three of those years, the time trial was a 16-kilometer uphill affair, held in Vail. (In 2012, Phinney won the final-stage time trial, in Denver, with Christian Vande Velde locking up the GC.) This year, the time trial moves to Breckenridge, and while it delivers a climb — back up Moonstone Road — there’s also a significant descent down Boreas Pass that will test riders’ handling skills as well.

The final two stages of the race will be held along the Front Range at lower elevation and are less likely to shake up the classification.

The penultimate stage starts on the plains, in Loveland, heading up the north side of Carter Lake and then Rist Canyon before traversing a lumpy route around Horsetooth Reservoir to the finish in Fort Collins. The final stage, from Golden to Denver, should be one for the sprinters, and offers one last chance for teams that have yet to leave an impact on the race. A climb up Lookout Mountain will spring the day’s breakaway, leaving the sprint teams roughly 50 miles to reel it back before setting up for a sprint along the finishing circuits in Denver.

And it’s there, in front of the state capitol building, that the overall winner of the USA Pro Challenge will be crowned.

The women’s race

The inaugural Women’s USA Pro Challenge features three days of racing that coincide with the final three days of the men’s route.

The course will include the individual time trial in Breckenridge on the same technical, difficult course the men will ride. The second stage will feature a challenging road race, and the final stage will be a circuit race to showcase the sprinters.

Three Americans — Kristin Armstrong (Twenty16-Sho-Air), Mara Abbott (Amy D. Foundation), and Coryn Rivera (UnitedHealthcare) — are likely to light up the racing.

Armstrong is a favorite whenever she rolls down the start ramp of a time trial. She’s in the middle of a second-career comeback, and her national TT title in May proved that she’s on track for the Richmond worlds and the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. She’ll be targeting the women’s stage 1 TT in Breckenridge, and she’ll look to back up that performance with a fight for the overall, supported by Tour of Utah criterium winner Allie Dragoo and recent Cascade Classic GC winner Andrea Dvorak.

A two-time winner of the Giro Rosa, Colorado native Abbott is no stranger to high-elevation climbs. Stage 2, from Loveland to Fort Collins, sees the women’s peloton climb for nearly 20 miles up Rist Canyon, which could be a perfect launchpad for Abbott to win on home turf. Riding for the composite Amy D. Foundation team, however, could mean that Abbott may not enjoy the same depth of support as other GC favorites.

If stage 2 ends in a bunch sprint, look to UnitedHealthcare riders Hannah Barnes or Rivera to finish the job. And if it doesn’t, Stage 3 — a hilly, technical circuit in Golden — will offer up another possibility for the UHC sprinters to strut their stuff. Barnes and Rivera are two of the best sprinters in the sport — it’s not uncommon to see them finish first and second in a field sprint.

Correction: An earlier version of this story listed Canadian Michael Woods (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) as a domestic rider to watch, based on his second overall finish at the Tour of Utah. His team, however, confirmed that Woods would not take place in Colorado, instead focusing on the Tour of Alberta.