Velo Best Domestic Race: USA Pro Challenge; Domestic Most Dramatic Day of Racing: Rory Sutherland wins on Flagstaff

The USA Pro Challenge is our Best Race of the year; Rory Sutherland's win atop Flagstaff Mountain is our Most Dramatic Day of Racing

Editor’s note: The January 2013 issue of Velo magazine, which is on newsstands now, is our 25th annual awards issue. Our 2012 Cyclist of the Year was announced on November 29; we’ll be rolling out various other award winners throughout the month of December.

Best Domestic Race: USA Pro Challenge

“The Mountain changes everything.” It’s the slogan for the USA Pro Challenge, which, in just two years, has become the preeminent race in North America.

Colorado’s terrain has all of the ingredients for a world-class stage race: amazing scenery, long alpine climbs, fast, twisting descents, thin air, and absolutely rabid cycling fans. With all due respect to the Amgen Tour of California, which plays a crucial role on the North American racing calendar, in 2012, there was no comparison between the two events.

(Example: The USA Pro Challenge held its time trial in downtown Denver, starting and finishing in the scenic Civic Center Park; the Amgen Tour’s time trial was held in remote Bakersfield, on a university campus, in sweltering heat well over 100 degrees.)

And while California’s sole summit finish on Mount Baldy was a great day of racing, the first four stages in California followed an identical pattern — tough, but not decisive, low-mountain climbs, followed by long, flat run-ins to town — delivering the same stage winner, Peter Sagan, four days in a row. In Colorado, the first four stages delivered four different stage winners, including a pair of inspired solo victories, first from a rejuvenated Tom Danielson in Aspen, and then from the venerable Jens Voigt in Beaver Creek.

And of course there was the Flagstaff Mountain summit finish, our winner for the Most Dramatic Day of Racing. In all, the race lead in Colorado changed five times, including on the final day, with the margin between the winner, Christian Vande Velde, and the third-place finisher, Levi Leipheimer, just 24 seconds.

Domestic Most Dramatic Day of Racing: Rory Sutherland wins on Flagstaff Mountain

The French have l’Alpe d’Huez. Italians have the Stelvio. In cycling-mad Boulder, Colorado, where Velo is based, we’ve got Flagstaff Mountain. No, it doesn’t have the lore of the heralded switchbacks. No, the Giro doesn’t
dance over it. But that’s no matter. Because for one day this August, the penultimate stage of the USA Pro Challenge on Boulder’s iconic Flagstaff Mountain was absolutely insane, a teeming mass of fans and bikes — pure bike racing pandemonium.

And there was Rory Sutherland, the Aussie-turned Boulderite, cutting through that madness. This could have been top-level racing anywhere in the world. The sun beat down upon a sea of thousands, and the UnitedHealthcare all-rounder had been working in the break all day. With one final climb and the people waiting, the scene was set for glory.

The 102.8-mile stage included 10,000 feet of climbing and took the peloton from Golden to Boulder via the mountain town of Nederland, Peak to Peak Highway, and Lyons, retracing some of the roads raced by LeMond and Hinault during the Coors Classic days of the 1980s. Riders faced the Lee Hill grind before tackling Flagstaff, a legendary climb just above Boulder that ascends 1,200 feet in 3.5 rowdy miles.

The break also included Boulder riders Chris Baldwin and Timmy Duggan. But it was fan favorite Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Nissan) who attacked and led the race onto the lower, and very steep slopes of Flagstaff. The German forged a gap, and the crowd went nuts. Sutherland set out after him, reeled him in and went on past, and the crowd went wild again.

Sutherland took the race by the throat and held on for dear life as the GC men throttled one another behind him, only adding to the lore of the Flag. Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) attacked BMC rider (and race leader) Tejay van Garderen fiercely and broke free, launched by a move from Joe Dombrowski (Bontrager-Livestrong). By the time the dust had cleared, Leipheimer was in yellow, eventual overall winner Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Sharp) was nine seconds back, and a disappointed van Garderen found himself 21 seconds out of a lead he’d held until that final climb.

“I gave it everything I had. Today was one of the most beautiful days I’ve ever seen in cycling. I wanted to put on a show and give it everything. I was completely empty at the line,” Leipheimer said.

For Sutherland, the Boulder stage marked a massive achievement on his adopted home soil. “It’s my biggest career win,” Sutherland said after the race. “And I’m still coming to terms with how we actually managed to pull that off. It’s great for UnitedHealthcare and great for me as well.”

Admittedly, the Velo editorial staff is more than a little biased; we ride Flagstaff as part of our lunch rides at least once a week. But when Leipheimer, the poster boy for the Amgen Tour of California since its inception, called the Flagstaff stage the most dramatic day in the history of bike racing on North American soil, we knew we hadn’t invented or imagined the insanity. It really was that amazing.