Editor’s Note: VeloNews.com will livestream Sunday’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge pre-race news conference. Tune in to VeloNews.com/velolive at 1:15 pm MT.
BOULDER, Colo. (VN) – The headliners for the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge are obvious. The entire Tour de France podium — Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) and Andy and Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) — will be at the start in Colorado Springs on Monday. So too will be three-time Tour of California best young rider Robert Gesink (Rabobank), former Tour de France podium finisher Levi Leipheimer(RadioShack) and top American finisher at this year’s Tour, Tom Danielson (Garmin-Cervélo).
But who are the big names in the smaller teams you should look for on the Colorado roads next week? These riders didn’t feature in France in July, but could very well win stages or even contend in the overall in Colorado in August.
Chris Baldwin (Bissell)
Baldwin has dreamt about a major race in his backyard for his entire career. After a tough 2010, the Boulder-based Bissell rider was without a job at the beginning of the season. A resurgence for third overall at the Redlands Classic in March turned that around and Baldwin will enter Colorado as a leader in the Michigan-based third-tier squad.
A former time trial national champion (when the title was elite, not professional), Baldwin has become more of a pure climber late in his career. Living at altitude for all of his 13 years as a pro, Baldwin is well adapted to the thin-air environment and has seen nearly all of the Colorado parcours. The Colorado tour has been one of the key factors in Baldwin’s refocused 2011, which has included a runner-up result (by one second) on the summit-finish third stage in July’s Cascade Classic and a solid ride in last week’s Tour of Utah.
While the overall podium is most likely out of reach for Baldwin, stage 2 to Aspen and the next day’s uphill time trial in Vail could see him in the hunt for a stage win, a result that would make the race for any Continental team.
Lucas Euser (Spidertech-C10)
Euser, formerly a member of the ProTour Garmin squad, is back to full strength this year for the first time since his car/bike accident in the early summer of 2009. The sprightly climber is in his second year with the second-tier Canadian squad and comes off a ninth overall at last week’s Tour of Utah.
The Napa Valley, California, native relocated to Boulder earlier this year and has used a heap of altitude training to prep for the conditions he’ll meet next week. After his ride in Utah, Euser went to Leadville, Colorado, the country’s highest city, for a week of fine-tuning with his team. The rough mining town is not only good for acclimatizing to the oxygen-poor mountain environs, but also to living hardscrabble on the road.
Euser is capable of hanging in on the rolleurs’ stages and if he can put together solid rides to Mount Crested Butte and Aspen, and nail the uphill Vail time trial, he could very well see the top-10 of the final GC. Even more likely is that he’ll contest the stage win in Aspen; the altitude could very well act as enough of an equalizer to bring him close to the level of the riders like the Schlecks and Gesink, and with teammate and Tour of California KOM winner Pat McCarty in the fold, Euser could score his first major win since the 2008 Univest Grand Prix.
Ken Hanson (Jelly Belly-Kenda)
Jelly Belly-Kenda had a rough start to the year with over half of the third-tier squad’s roster turned over in the offseason. Director Danny Van Haute’s frustration culminated in an ultimately disappointing showing at the Tour of California. That’s when things turned around for the longest tenured squad in the U.S. and new arrival Ken Hanson led the way.
Hanson has been consistent since late May when he came back from a first lap crash for seventh in the U.S. national championship road race. From there he helped launch teammate Alex Hagman — another rider to watch during stage 2 — into the KOM-winning breakaway at the Philadelphia International Championship before riding to fourth (the top domestic rider) in the finale.
The Santa Barbara, California, resident entered 2011 hoping to erase any notion of him as purely a criterium sprinter and he’s done well. He won the tough Menomonie stage at the Nature Valley Grand Prix in 2010 and took a short circuit stage in the Tour de Korea this spring before his nationals and Philadelphia results.
If he handles the altitude well after a weeklong camp with his team near the stage 6 climb of Lookout Mountain, in Evergreen, Hanson will be a rider to watch in the finishes in Steamboat Springs, Breckenridge and Denver. With Daniel Oss (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Kenny Van Hummel (Skil-Shimano) the top European sprinters in the Colorado tour, Steamboat could see the first Continental rider to win a stage in a major U.S. tour since Martin Gilbert (Spidertech-C10) on the final day of the 2009 Tour of Missouri.
Sergio Henao (Gobernacion de Antioguia-Indeportes Antioguia)
The Team Sky-bound Colombian flew onto U.S. radars when he topped all at the Tour of Utah uphill prologue earlier this month. Henao pulled on the race’s first leader’s jersey and defended the next day when he made the five-man GC split on the tough North Ogden Pass climb with teammate Oscar Sevilla, Levi Leipheimer and Jani Brajkovic (RadioShack) and surprise stage winner Jesse Anthony (Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth).
Henao eventually ceded the jersey to Leipheimer, who won his second consecutive Tour of Utah, but won the queen stage to bookend the week. The diminutive Colombian’s attack on Little Cottonwood Canyon blew the race apart and only Leipheimer could follow.
The Gobernacion squad was somewhat of a surprise invitation to the Colorado tour. Under a rule introduced earlier this year, the squad earned a spot based on its riders’ individual America Tour standings in 2010. The UCI has not enforced the rule in a number of instances this year, including the Tour of California. Santiago Botero directs the squad that includes Sevilla; both are leftovers of Operación Puerto, the Spanish doping scandal that rocked world cycling half a decade ago, and were teammates at Rock Racing.
Regardless, Henao is a promising Colombian prospect. He won his national tour, a relentlessly brutal, 14-stage affair, in August of 2010 and wound up fourth there this year. He’s proven he is a winner with a slew of stage wins in Latin American races since 2007.
Midway through his North American breakthrough in Utah, British ProTeam Sky announced that Henao would join the team in 2012. Where is the limit for the 23-year-old Colombian? Can he win the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge? Why not?
Rory Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare)
Other than Henao, Sutherland is perhaps the most viable podium threat in the general classification of all of the non-ProTeam riders. The 29-year-old Boulder-based Australian is the leader of the second division UnitedHealthcare squad based in California.
A product of the Rabobank Continental program, Sutherland was a dominant force in domestic racing between 2007 and 2010. He won the overall in the National Racing Calendar in 2007 and 2008 and finished third each of the last two seasons. Along the way Sutherland took overall honors at nearly every North American stage race and was second to Peter Sagan at Big Bear in the 2010 Tour of California.
This year Sutherland’s UHC squad made the step to Pro Continental status and spent a good chunk of the spring in Europe preparing for California. That work paid off with a narrow miss on the race’s first-ever mountaintop finish, at Sierra Road, and seventh overall. In June Sutherland took a week off the bike and reset for a run at the Colorado tour, his second main priority of the season.
The all-rounders parcours in Colorado suits Sutherland particularly well. He can climb with all but the elite of the elite mountain goats and should go well in the Vail time trial. The latter is the one place where riders like Tom Danielson and Cadel Evans will have an advantage, but Sutherland’s chops in the wind and uphill power finishes at Mount Crested Butte and Breckenridge could serve him well.
Sutherland is not among the invitees to the pre-race press conference Sunday. Neither was Chris Horner before he won the Tour of California in May.