Leipheimer won the 2011 USAPCC with a TT win, and he could do the same this year. Photo: Alex Kehr/Flickr.
The hottest race on the American cycling circuit begins today in Durango, Colorado, and the event is even more stacked with talent than it was last year. True, this year doesn't have quite the marquis billing of 2011, which featured the entire Tour de France podium (e.g. Cadel Evans and both Schleck brothers). But with five Pro Tour teams, six of the top 20 finishers from this year's Grand Boucle, a full roster of domestic talent, and what most are calling a harder parcours than last year, the 2012 USA Pro Cycling Challenge (USAPCC) promises to be dramatic.
From grand tour powerhouses like Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso, and Andreas Klöden to young American upstarts such as Timmy Duggan and Matthew Busche, a dozen or more riders could contend for the title—at least on paper. Yet by our estimation the race will most likely come down to just a couple of Americans. Not only do the home teamers have the advantage racing at altitude—much of the race is at or near 10,000 feet, with a highpoint on day three's run over 12,126-foot Cottonwood Pass—they have the added incentive of winning a major race on their home turf. Here are our predictions.
LEVI LEIPHEIMER: It's difficult to bet against the defending champ, especially since this course suits him as well if not better than last year's race did. A weak team held him back from repeating his 2011 victory at the Tour of Utah last week, but he scored a decisive win on a brutally tough climb on that race's final day to show that he's up to the challenge of Colorado. The one-two punch of a mountaintop finish on Stage 6 and time trial on Stage 7 plays perfectly to Leipheimer's strengths, and the 38-year-old has to be motivated to make up for the lackluster season he's had due to the broken leg he sustained in a car accident in April. With only a year or two remaining in his career, Leipheimer must know that this could be one of his final opportunities for a major win, and we expect him to capitalize.
TEEJAY VAN GARDEREN: Leipheimer's chief competition will come from BMC's rising star, who was poised to win the inaugual USAPCC but caved under the pressure when he underachieved at the Vail time trial. He's a year older and much more experienced, having eclipsed 2011 Tour de France champ Cadel Evans at this year's Tour to place fifth overall, so we expect him to put up a much harder fight this time around. Like Leipheimer, Van Garderen is equally as good in the time trial as he is on the climbs, and he has the advantage of the support of one of the strongest teams in the race, including Evans, George Hincapie, Taylor Phinney, and just-crowned Utah champ Johann Tschopp. At 24, Van Garderen is ready for a break-out win, and the Tour of Colorado presents an ideal opportunity.
CHRISTIAN VANDE VELDE & TOM DANIELSON: Boulder-based Garmin-Sharp ought to be the odds-on favorite for the the win with these two climbing aces, who placed second and fourth respectively at the 2011 edition of the USAPCC. But the team has been a bit unlucky of late, and its two stars were inconsistent in the Tour of Utah lead-up. Danielson often folds under the pressure of expectations, so our money is on Vande Velde, who is the superior time trialer. But both riders will need to step up their game if they want to challenge Leipheimer and Van Garderen.
CHRIS HORNER: At age 40, Horner might be the old man of the peloton but he's shown that he still has what it takes to be in the mix. Though he hasn't had the same dominant form as he did in 2011, when he beat then-teammate Leipheimer to capture the overall at the Tour of California, he placed a respectable 13th at this year's Tour de France and guided the American contingency to an effective (if fruitless) Olympic road race. One added incentive: trying to help make up for Radioshack-Nissan-Trek's lackluster season. If he can find his climbing legs from last year, he could sneak onto the final podium, but the closing time trial doesn't play to his strengths.
SPOILERS: The last time we expected Americans to dominate a U.S. race, at the Tour of California in May, the home team crumbled and Dutchman Robert Gesink rode away with the title. Though we don't expect it, the same could easily happen in Colorado. The biggest threat is Liquigas-Cannondale's Vincenzo Nibali, who took third at the Tour de France and whose versatility in the mountains and against the clock might help him edge out the local favorites. Also keep an eye on BMC's Johan Tschopp, winner of last week's Tour of Utah, Radioshack-Nissan's Jakob Fuglsang, and Astana's Janez Brajkovic.
OUR WAGER: Levi, Tejay, and Nibali, in that order. What's your bet?