Steamboat Springs Back in November Gov. Bill Ritter stood on the steps of the Capitol and announced the route for the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge.
It had buzz then, but no one could have imagined what Monday’s prologue in Colorado Springs would become.
The field, widely viewed as the deepest and most talented field to compete on U.S. soil, with five top 10 finishers from the Tour de France, begins Monday and for the next seven days will travel along some of Colorado’s most scenic roads.
The route will take riders to unprecedented heights, along mostly unfamiliar routes with a Tour de France-like feel.
“The depth of the peloton here, it’s quite a coup for the U.S.,” said Levi Leipheimer, one of the main contenders in this years race and winner of the Tour of Utah. “You have the entire Tour de France podium. There is Ivan Basso and Robert Gesink. Then there is all the American teams. It’s one of the best fields ever assembled in America.”
In addition to Leipheimer, Basso and Gesink, other contenders include Andy and Frank Schleck, Cadel Evans and Christian Vande Velde. Also look for a strong push from Sergio Luis Henao, who won the Tour of Colombia, and consistently trains at altitude in Columbia.
But the pre-race favorite is one of Colorado’s own.
Tom Danielson, who finished ninth in the Tour de France, has been living and training in Colorado for 15 years.
The Boulder cyclist won’t be shocked by the altitude — probably the biggest factor in the event — or the competition, and just about every racer has deemed him the heavy favorite this week.
“It’s already been a beautiful experience,” Danielson said Sunday at the opening press conference.
Although the race begins Monday, most agree that Wednesday’s Stage 2 and Thursday’s Stage 3 are where the race most likely will be won.
Wednesday’s 130-mile ride from Gunnison to Aspen features climbs over Cottonwood and Independence passes, sending riders to more than 12,000 feet in elevation.
“Most of us coming from Europe, (the altitude) is going to be the biggest obstacle for us,” said Evans, who won this year’s Tour de France. “I’m just hoping I adjust in time for Tuesday and Wednesday.”
Thursday is a time trial in Vail. By then, the top names from the race should emerge.
“The guy that wins (Stage 2) or is in the top three is going to be the overall winner,” said Danny Van Haute, the team director for the Jelly Belly Cycling Team. “That’s what’s going to happen unless something drastic happens. All the stages are nice and tough, but that’s the queen stage.”
It doesn’t mean that everything will be decided by the time riders make their way from Avon to Steamboat on Friday. But with the final three stages not featuring the climbs of the earlier ones, it will be harder for riders to make up time.
Coming into Steamboat, people should expect an early group to breakaway coming out of Avon and set the pace. By the time riders hit U.S. Highway 40, it will be chaos and a sprint to the finish.
“Of course I hope to win this race,” Andy Schleck said. “But there are no bad riders here. Everyone can win this race.”
Monday: Colorado Springs
Distance: 5.18 miles
Total climb: 219 feet
What to expect: Racers will leave in one-minute intervals and will determine the order for the next stage. With only five miles to cover, cyclists speeds will get up to 50 mph.
Tuesday: Salida to Crested Butte
Distance: 99.4 miles
Total climb: 8.020 feet
What to expect: Riders will get their first real taste of elevation at the top of Monarch Pass. This will be the first day to see how teams will tackle the climbing stages.
Wednesday: Gunnison to Aspen
Distance: 131.1 miles
Total climb: 9,746 feet
What to expect: The queen stage is the premier day of the event. It climbs Cottonwood and Independence passes, both sitting at more than 12,000 feet. Expect the leaders and general classification contenders to emerge from this stage.
Thursday: Vail time trial
Distance: 10 miles
Total climb: 1,783 feet
What to expect: If the queen stage determines the top contenders, the time trial could determine a winner. The ride starts in Vail and climbs up along Interstate 70.
Friday: Avon to Steamboat
Distance: 82.8 miles
Total climb: 5,034 feet
What to expect: Watch for a lead group to breakaway early in the race and see which riders and teams want to push the pace. Designed for a sprinter to win, the last mile to the finish should be full of suspense.
Saturday: Steamboat to Breckenridge
Distance: 105.2 miles
Total climb: 8.327 feet
What to expect: Watch for a breakaway group to tackle Rabbit Ears Pass early. Then the stage will be one of the fastest of the event. Rabbit Ears also will hold a King of the Mountain line.
Sunday: Golden to Denver
Distance: 73.79 miles
Total climb: 3,129 feet
What to expect: Great racing in downtown Denver. After attacking Lookout Mountain, the race does six, five-mile laps along Speer Boulevard.
— To reach Luke Graham, call 970-871-4229 or email lgraham@SteamboatToday.com