The climb up Rabbit Ears Pass during the 2011 USA Pro Challenge was steep and long enough to split the field. This year, coming from the opposite direction, could be a different story. The east end of the pass is gradual enough to keep climbers from gaining any significant advantage, local cyclists said. The pass will still be important, however, as teams position themselves for the final push toward the downtown sprint finish.

Photo by Joel Reichenberger

The climb up Rabbit Ears Pass during the 2011 USA Pro Challenge was steep and long enough to split the field. This year, coming from the opposite direction, could be a different story. The east end of the pass is gradual enough to keep climbers from gaining any significant advantage, local cyclists said. The pass will still be important, however, as teams position themselves for the final push toward the downtown sprint finish.

Pros: Expect a dramatic sprint Wednesday, a tough test Thursday

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— Rabbit Ears Pass may be one of the defining geographic features for many coming and going from Steamboat Springs by car, but for the professional cyclists headed to town Wednesday, the pass may not prove much of a speed bump.

That’s the message from Steamboat’s own cyclists: Riding up and down the pass may seem like a full day’s work for the average local, but it won’t change the complexion of the USA Pro Challenge and won’t prevent a thrilling sprint to the finish at the downtown Steamboat Springs finish line.

Stage 3, Going up

Wednesday’s stage runs 106 miles, from a 12:10 p.m. start on the streets of Breckenridge to an estimated 4:30 p.m. finish in front of the Routt County Courthouse in downtown Steamboat Springs.

Rabbit Ears Pass towers more than 3,000 feet above the town, but it won’t likely factor significantly into the race for several reasons. Professional cyclist Amy Charity said the road simply isn’t steep enough.

The riders will be coming up and over the pass from the east, passing through Kremmling and coming down U.S. Highway 40. That side of the pass isn’t nearly as steep.

In 2011, the race went over the pass from west to east. That steeper approach did allow the more talented climbers to break away from the pack. But with a more gradual rise to the pass’s peak, that’s not likely to happen again.

“It’s not a climber's hill, and those kind of hills are what will typically cause the big gaps,” Charity said. “You need something where the climbers can get ahead and where the sprinters can’t hang on, but on the backside of Rabbit Ears, it’s not long enough to divide the group.”

Stage 3, setting it up

That doesn’t mean it will be one giant pack of riders, at least at that point. Local rider Barkley Robinson said he expects one small group to break away from the main group early during the route.

Letting them get away, then slowly reeling them back in is all a part of race strategy for teams hoping to set up a sprint finish on the downtown streets of Steamboat Springs.

“The sprinter teams will try to time it, so the catch happens late in the race. That way it's easier for them to control the race,” Robinson said. “That way their speed will be up as they get toward the end for the sprint, and it keeps any other breakaways from getting away.”

Stage 3, Coming down

Unfortunately for those hoping for a breakaway finish, the descent down the west side of Rabbit Ears Pass, while steeper, isn’t likely steep enough to separate a professional field of cyclists.

It’s 7 miles from the West Summit of the pass to the flat section of highway that leads to Steamboat Springs, another 7 miles down the road.

It should make for an exciting descent, with riders blowing past any fans gathered alongside the highway. But it may not be long enough, and the road not steep enough, to change the race.

“It will be high speed, but it's so wide open on the descent, the turns are so wide and fast, that it’s not the type of downhill where a small group will be able to put time on a bigger group,” Robinson said.

He explained that it's possible on more twisty, steep downhills. It’s not likely on the west side of Rabbit Ears, however.

“It doesn’t really have any technical turns, no switchbacks on it,” Charity said. “It’s not a descent that will favor the stronger, heavier people and is something where the pack can stick together. It’s straight and a very steady grade. It won’t be a problem for the lighter weight cyclists to stick with the pack.

“I imagine there will be a sprinter finish downtown.”

Stage 3, Catching up

That’s what the teams with the top sprinters will be hoping for and trying to set up. In case any group did manage to stay ahead of the main pack, those 7 flat miles between the base of the pass and Steamboat Springs offer ample opportunity for the efficiency of the peloton — riders drafting in that large group can save 20 or 30 percent of their strength — to overwhelm any smaller group.

That’s certainly not a bad thing as it will make for a quick but awesome flight down Lincoln Avenue to the finish line at Sixth Street. Downtown on Lincoln Avenue likely will be the place to catch the day’s greatest drama.

Stage 4, riding Twentymile

The race is set to begin at 11 a.m. Thursday, leaving from Gondola Square at the base of Steamboat Ski Area. It will roll through downtown, through Lincoln Avenue, hang a right onto 13th Street and exit on Twentymile Road, or Routt County Road 33. The route will link with C.R. 27 near the coal mine, then turn left, heading southeast to Oak Creek. The race then turns south again, heading down Colorado Highway 131 to Beaver Creek.

Thursday’s stage could help decide the race’s overall winner, and that could be thanks in part to Routt County hills.

Robinson said Twentymile Road is one of the area’s best places for road riding.

“They go over a couple smaller climbs to get to the mine, then hit the three sister climbs between the mine and Oak Creek,” Robinson said.

Those three climbs are each longer and more difficult than the last, and the final one stands just above Oak Creek.

“They’re back to back to back,” he said. “That will start to break up the field. If there hasn’t been a break already, it will be established on those climbs. They’re long enough and hard enough for a group to try to get away.”

It could be the first part of one of the race's best days.

“It’s pretty early to do that, but a cyclist will try to get off the front, and a hill is the place to do it,” Charity added. “It will be an ideal place for one of the smaller climbers to try to get away. I have a hard time imagining one or two riders staying away, but if it were a small group, I could see it splintering.”

South from Oak Creek

Colo. 131 offers plenty of challenges, as well, including several significant climbs in the southern reaches of Routt County and as the race nears Interstate 70 and the Beaver Creek finish.

“The climb out from State Bridge toward Wolcott is pretty significant,” Robinson said. “Then they climb Bachelor Gulch and then up to Beaver Creek.

“That will be a pretty tough stage, and one that will see more separation.”

Bachelor Gulch tops out at 9,100 feet, and after another descent, a two-mile climb remains to the finish line.

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

USA Pro Challenge 2013 route

2013 USA Pro Challenge road closures

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