USA Pro Challenge serves up punchy route for 2013

Punchy, compact route should yield to aggressive racing during the seven-day race through Colorado

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FORT COLLINS, Colo. (VN) — USA Pro Challenge organizers unveiled a route for the 2013 race on Thursday morning that will feature a return to the Vail Pass time trial, a frantic, hilly stage in northern Colorado, and a final-day circuit race in downtown Denver. The punchy, compact route should lend itself to aggressive racing throughout the event’s seven days and live up to the race’s history of nail-biting GC contests.
As is customary, the race’s top executive, CEO Shawn Hunter, said in a press release that he thought the 2013 route was the event’s best yet.

“We’ve set out to create the greatest professional cycling event in the U.S. and with each edition the route continues to evolve, the competition continues to be fierce, and the fans continue to come out in droves,” said Hunter. “In looking at the route we have outlined, each day is a challenge, which will create some amazing racing. This year is looking like it will be the best yet.”

The third annual race, which runs Aug. 19-25, will start with a stage 1 circuit race in the Roaring Fork Valley near Aspen. At just 66 miles, the three-lap opener features more than 9,000 feet of climbing. Each 21.6-mile lap will climb from Aspen toward Snowmass Village via Owl Creek Road before riders plummet back to the start/finish in the valley. While the big menu of climbing and high altitude (the start is at 7,908 feet above sea level) present a tough challenge, the short length and long run-in to the finish in Aspen should keep the race mostly glued together, though riders unprepared for the thin air will struggle. That difficulty could play out when the attacks fly on the final lap, or it could surface the next day, after sub-optimal recover, when the race heads for Breckenridge.

Stage 2 will almost immediately travel over 12,095-foot Independence Pass before climbing from Fairplay over Hoosier Pass and finishing with a semi-technical loop above Breckenridge on the steep Moonstone and Boreas Pass roads. If the weather turns, as it is apt to do quickly in the high Rockies in August, the finale of the 126-mile stage, from the summit of Hoosier Pass to Breckenridge, and particularly the Moonstone victory lap, could get messy. Look for opportunists to try and make the first real differences in the general classifications on the latter. This is a race of seconds, as 2011 and 2012 proved, and an attentive rider could make a few in Breckenridge.

The race’s third day will essentially revisit the 2011 stage from Steamboat Springs to Breckenridge, stalemated by Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Leopard) and Laurens Ten Dam (Blanco) and won by Elia Viviani (Cannondale), in reverse. Riders will start the 106-mile stage with a climb of Swan Mountain Road before a long slog north along the Green Mountain Reservoir, the climb of Rabbit Ears Pass, and a roughly 18-mile final approach to “Bike Town USA.” The climb of Rabbit Ears from the rural town of Kremmling is a wide-road grind for upwards of 30 miles, with the climb’s real kick building in the last five miles toward its twin summits. The wind can blow hard down the pass, curtailing any escapes and making for a hard day in the bunch. If this happens, look for the peloton to regroup for a high-speed bunch finish.

Stage 4, a 102.9-mile run from Steamboat Springs to Beaver Creek, could be the most decisive of the race, with the climb south from the tiny Colorado River village of State Bridge at mile 67 opening what should be an active finale. The heavy, two-lane road climbs up out of the river basin and drops riders down into the Vail Valley for a grinding push up to the town of Avon. From there, riders will face two tough climbs in the final 11 miles: the ascent through the exclusive Bachelors Gulch luxury development, which steepens to 18-percent gradient, and the finish climb to Beaver Creek Village, where Jens Voigt (RadioShack) stormed to solo victory in 2012. Many of the outside contenders still in with a shot after the first dust-up in Breckenridge will find themselves on the outside in Beaver Creek. The stage winner will likely emerge on the penultimate climb and the time gaps could approach half-a-minute. This is where three back-to-back days of decisive racing begin.

Stage 5 will see the race return to the familiar roads of East Vail, site of the Vail Pass time trial. The 10-mile individual test will climb east from Vail Village toward the pass, rising 1,100 feet, with nearly all of that coming over the final five miles. In 2011, Levi Leipheimer used this stage to ride into the race’s first overall title, edging 2012 champ Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Sharp) by less than a second. After a tough day, a rider suffering from poor sleep at altitude (like Tejay van Garderen in 2011) or a bad stomach (Tom Danielson that same year) could shed big time. With the mostly-flat, potentially windy opening and brutally steep closing miles — likely packed to a single rider wide — pacing is a major challenge in this TT throwback to the Coors Classic. The first crux of the stage comes before the start, in equipment selection, and many riders will decide on the day whether they’ll pilot a time trial bike or a road bike with bar extensions. In 2011, Leipheimer chose the former, Vande Velde rode a road bike, and they ended up on essentially the same time. The second key point comes halfway through the stage, when an almost quarter-mile stretch of road narrows and ramps up to 8.1-percent gradient. Press too hard here, and a rider risks blowing up early on the climb. Back off too much, and the GC could be gone.

For the race’s penultimate stage, the Pro Challenge will take to new roads, visiting the northern Front Range of the state for the first time. If the overall winner did not lock in the jersey in Vail, the hilly circuit beginning near Loveland and finishing in Old Town Fort Collins will see the final GC battle of the race. The route features more than 3,500 feet of climbing over 115.2 miles, but the short, sharp ascents are potentially race-breaking. The final KOM climb of the Pro Challenge will come at Devil’s Gulch, topping out above the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park. After an 18-mile big-ring climb above Loveland to the block-long community of Glen Haven (and the best cinnamon rolls and crotchety storekeeper on this year’s race route), a one-mile section tilts upward and features multiple stretches of road above 15-percent. From the summit, riders will lap Estes Park before plummeting down Big Thompson Canyon and heading north for a series of ramps near Horsetooth Reservoir. Three short, steep walls lie just west of Fort Collins and lead to a mostly flat, seven-mile run-in to the finish. The race should regroup to some degree on the descent from Estes Park, but the puncheurs should come to the fore on the final climbs and the stage will likely see a group sprint of no more than 10 riders — what they’ll be sprinting for, exactly, will have to wait until late on August 24.

As it did in 2011, the USA Pro Challenge will wrap up with a circuit race in Denver. The 47.1-mile stage will follow a course linking Civic Center Park, in the heart of the city, to City Park, home of the Denver Zoo. The stage is almost certainly pegged for a bunch finish and may see the only such tilt of the entire race, beneath the steps of the State Capitol. The circuit-race finale in 2011 saw over 500,000 fans roadside, according to organizers, and the atmosphere in Denver was electric. The move back to a mass-start finale should recapture some of that spirit and put a fitting cap on a tough week of racing — perhaps the race’s toughest yet.