Rabbit Ears Pass, which towers above Steamboat Springs, will present a grueling challenge for riders in this week’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge, a seven-stage cycling race that will draw many of the world’s premier riders to Colorado. As hard as the ride up the pass may be, the high elevation of the entire event could prove a hurdle so difficult it could decide the race. Racers will come through Steamboat as part of Stage 4 on Friday and Stage 5 on Saturday.

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Rabbit Ears Pass, which towers above Steamboat Springs, will present a grueling challenge for riders in this week’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge, a seven-stage cycling race that will draw many of the world’s premier riders to Colorado. As hard as the ride up the pass may be, the high elevation of the entire event could prove a hurdle so difficult it could decide the race. Racers will come through Steamboat as part of Stage 4 on Friday and Stage 5 on Saturday.

Altitude could be determining factor in Pro Cycling Challenge

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Points of interest

12,126 feet

Cottonwood Pass: highest point in USA Pro Cycling Challenge

9,396 feet

Rabbit Ears Pass west summit: height at the end of the day’s most grueling climb

9,002 feet

Col Agnel: highest point of the 2011 Tour de France

8,677 feet

Col du Galibier: highest finish in Tour de France history

6,695 feet

Steamboat Springs: Elevation of the Stage 4 finish and Stage 5 start in Steamboat Springs

Prologue

When: Monday

Start: Garden of the Gods, 6,385 feet

Finish: Colorado Springs, 6,017

Distance: 5.18 miles

Climb: 219 feet

Stage 1

When: Tuesday

Start: Salida, 7,036 feet

Finish: Crested Butte, 9,375 feet

Distance: 99.4 miles

Climb: 8,020 feet

Stage 2

When: Wednesday

Start: Gunnison, 7,703 feet

Finish: Aspen, 7,908 feet

Distance: 131.1 miles

Climb: 9,746 feet

Stage 3

When: Thursday

Start: Vail, 8,150 feet

Finish: Vail Pass, 9,643 feet

Distance: 10 miles

Climb: 1,783 feet

Stage 4

When: Friday

Start: Avon, 7,430 feet

Finish: Steamboat Springs, 6,695 feet

Distance: 82.8 miles

Climb: 5,034 feet

Stage 5

When: Saturday

Start: Steamboat Springs, 6,695 feet

Finish: Breckenridge, 9,603

Distance: 105.2 miles

Climb: 8,327 feet

Stage 6

When: Aug. 28

Start: Golden, 5,675 feet

Finish: Denver, 5,280 feet

Distance: 73.79 miles

Climb: 3,129 feet

— Andy Schleck broke free July 21 from the Tour de France field and charged nearly 40 miles in a breakaway, thundering up the grueling Col du Galibier mountain pass in the French Alps.

The breakaway and the stage immediately were hailed as some of the best in Tour de France history, not only because Schleck had muscled himself into what seemed to be a position to win the grandest title in his sport, but also because he did so by crossing the highest finish line in the event’s history.

The course that day topped out at 8,677 feet.

The highest point of the 2011 Tour de France was 9,002 feet, and there were only five passes in the whole span — those two included — that ventured above Steamboat Springs’ base elevation of 6,695 feet.

What that means for this week’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge race, which will dip into Steamboat Springs for part of two stages, remains to be seen. But everyone, from high-altitude doctors to the race favorites, is sure of one thing: while France’s may remain the world’s best major cycling race, Colorado’s is the highest, and that will figure greatly into everything that happens.

“You feel it,” said Levi Leipheimer, the United States’ most decorated active cyclist and one of those aforementioned favorites.

“I’m sitting here giving this interview, and I noticed I’m breathing harder, and I’ve been at altitude three weeks,” he said Friday. “You always feel it. You just get better at dealing with it.”

The air up there

The Pro Cycling Challenge, which starts its seven-stage run through the Centennial State on Monday in Colorado Springs, will offer American racing fans opportunities they’ve never had: a chance to see the entire podium from the Tour de France.

It’s the altitude that has many predicting a native to be the race’s inaugural champion, however.

The reason all comes down to blood — performance at altitude requires more of it.

“There’s an adaptive process that goes on with being at altitude,” Steamboat Springs doctor Eric Meyer said. “Higher altitude means lower oxygen pressure, and what that means is your system has to work that much harder, the heart and the blood vessel system, to circulate more blood, which is containing less oxygen.”

Meyer has studied the effects of altitude on human bodies in several facets, including on climbing expeditions to the tallest mountains in the world in Asia’s Himalayan range and while working with the U.S. Ski Team’s Nordic combined squad. High-altitude living changes the way bodies work, he explained, and it can take three weeks for a person — even one of the world’s best athletes — to adjust properly to that change, for a body to produce enough extra red blood cells to make up for the gain in elevation.

How efficiently people make those adjustments has as much to do with genetics as it does anything else, but Meyer said a careful training regime — one that actually mixes lower-altitude work with that at higher altitudes — can be key for someone hoping to be at his physical peak in the peaks.

Leipheimer pointed out that there’s no one seriously hoping to win the race that hasn’t spent the past few weeks trying to tackle such problems. He rode in and won the Tour of Utah this month. Cadel Evans, who edged Schleck to become the 2011 Tour de France champion, has been training in Utah while Schleck, who has finished second in France the past three years, has spent the past several weeks in Steamboat and elsewhere in Colorado mixing training with the simple but critical act of living at 7,000 feet.

“Steamboat’s at an ideal elevation conducive to training,” Steamboat doctor and high-altitude mountain bike racer Dan Smilkstein said.

He said life in Steamboat helps him lay down a good base for his annual trip to the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race, which flies over 10,000 feet in elevation. He also adds in a few nights camping above 11,000 and cycling even higher than that to prepare.

He said a great athlete may be able to get through a day or two of high-altitude competition without serious acclimatization, but it eventually will catch him and destroy his chances at winning.

“By Stages 3, 4 and 5, people will just be in the pits as their body is going through adjustments,” Smilkstein said. “But those guys have the best coaching and training, and I’m sure they’ve been doing a number of higher-elevation things.”

Whether those efforts will amount to enough to negate the inherent advantages enjoyed by Americans such Boulder-based pro cyclist Tom Danielson, another favorite, could decide the race.

“The Euros could surprise all of us,” Meyer said. “A lot of them have raced in the United States in the Tour of California or the Tour of Utah, so they’re not really new to U.S. competition.

“But this would be considered extreme altitude for road cycling. Colorado is pretty special.”

Rarefied air

No amount of training will make the hurt go away, of course. The Pro Cycling Challenge includes a number of locations that will soar above the highest point riders saw on this year’s Tour de France.

Stage 2, a 131.1-mile trek from Gunnison to Aspen, will twice force riders above 12,000 feet, the 12,126-foot Cottonwood Pass reigning as the signature climb in the event.

“You definitely notice the altitude at 6,000 feet and 8,000 feet, but when you get up to 12,000 feet, your body is screaming to get back down to a lower altitude,” said Leipheimer, who’s had plenty of success at extreme altitudes, having set a course record in last year’s Leadville race.

“Regardless of how steep the climb is or how long the stage is, the altitude will be the biggest facet and there will probably be a lot of guys who have problems with it,” he said. “If they’re not acclimated, they’ll have a rough time.”

— To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com

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