George Hincapie wins the 2011 q
George Hincapie wins the 2011 queen stage into Aspen (Courtsey USA Pro Cycling Challen)

Pro Cycling Challenge Guide

Take your eyes off of the race every once in a while to enjoy some of these beautiful Colorado cities, home to incredible food, breathtaking views, and countless outdoor opportunities

George Hincapie wins the 2011 q

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The Definitive Adventure-Oriented Guide to the USA Pro Cycling Challenge

The 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge may have been the coolest race ever to be held on American soil. We saw defending Tour champion Cadel Evans go on the attack, American Tejay Van Garderen prove he’s a man for the future before his breakout 2012 Tour, and team Liquigas show off their sprinting abilities.

Nearly one million people watched the race from the roadside. And it’s fair to say they were in for a treat. Not only did they witness some of the best racing in American history, but they traveled across some of the most famous roads in the West with stops in cities known for incredible food, breathtaking views, and countless outdoor opportunities.

For 2012, the race is back, and we have you covered with the most comprehensive outdoor-oriented spectator guide available. Making it from stage to stage—with time to spectate, eat, and enjoy the outdoors—isn’t an on-the-fly undertaking. It takes some careful planning, research, and a healthy heaping of spur-of-the-moment decision-making. But stick to our outline, and you’ll not only get a taste of the race but of what makes the West so very special.

And if you're not planning on attending this year's Pro Cycling Challenge, bookmark this page and use it as a guide for your next trip to Colorado. On the following pages, you'll find the coziest inns and hotels, the most delicious restaurants and diners, and a list of outdoor activities that the whole family can enjoy.

Pack your camping gear, a pair of sturdy boots, and a road bike, and leave the rest to us.

The USA Pro Cycling Challenge: Stage 1

Durango to Telluride

Be sure to visit the Mesa Verde
Be sure to visit the Mesa Verde National Park (Massimo Catarinella/Wikimedia)

Rather than beginning with a prologue, the 2012 USA Pro Cycling Challenge starts with a 125-mile-long road stage taking off from Durango, one of the largest towns in Southwest Colorado, and descending into Telluride for a fast finish. The stage’s main attraction is Lizard Head Pass, the first real climb of the race. But because 15 miles of downhill racing separate the pass from the finish, don’t expect the race to be won on day one.

WHERE TO STAY: The key to your successful USA Pro Cycling Challenge campaign is making the most of the race—and everything else. So give yourself plenty of time before the whirlwind begins, and arrive in Durango several days early.

Durango is filled with cozy bed and breakfasts, and it has its fair share of turn-of-the-century hotels. It’s pretty hard to go wrong with any of the options. But your best bet is to camp out at the Morefield Campground, a mere four miles from the Mesa Verde National Park and an hour removed from Durango. If luxury is more your style, spend the night at the Nobody’s Inn, a boutique hotel located in historic downtown Durango.

WHAT TO DO: Visit the Mesa Verde National Park. Even if you don’t choose to camp at the Morefield Campground, the Mesa Verde offers an eye-opening look into the lives of the Pueblo people who made it their home for 700 years. They left behind over 5,000 archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. Ride the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Get off, go for a hike. And then hop back on. The train has been in continuous operation for 130 years and offers incredible views with an old West charm.

WHERE TO EAT: If you’re staying in Morefield, it’s hard to beat the Metate Room Restaurant, a winner of an award in culinary excellence from the American Culinary Federation Colorado Chefs Association. For food in Durango, Ken and Sue’s (for the wine) and the Ore House (for steak and ambiance) are two must-hit spots.

HOW TO WATCH THE RACE: If you catch the start in Durango, you won’t have time to make it up Lizard Head Pass. But that’s okay. Enjoy the fanfare at the start and get ready for day two.

RACE DAY SCHEDULE: Riders sign-in at 8 a.m. and begin racing at 10 a.m. They’ll arrive in Telluride around 3:50 p.m.

The USA Pro Cycling Challenge: Stage 2

Montrose to Crested Butte

The Million Dollar Highway
The Million Dollar Highway

This stage finishes with the four-minute-long climb where Levi Leipheimer laid the foundation for his victory last year. Along the way, the racers will climb Blue Mesa and pass through downtown Crested Butte. Expect an early breakaway from Cerro Summit. While the crowds shuffle between Telluride and Montrose, you'll be staying in the top-secret town of Ouray.

WHERE TO STAY: Rather than spending the night in Telluride after Stage 1, take the Million Dollar Highway to Ouray, Colorado, America’s little Switzerland (be prepared for incredible views and narrow lanes). Spend the night at the Best Western or under the stars at the Amphitheater Campground at an elevation of 8,400 feet. You'll be surrounded by the popular Upper Cascade Falls, Baby Bath Tubs, and Chief Ouray Mine trails.

WHAT TO DO After you arrive, head over to the Historic Wiesbaden Hot Springs Spa. Indulge in the private outdoor spa, vapor cave with 108-degree soaking tub, and outdoor hot spring-fed pool. Everyone from Travel & Leisure to National Geographic Traveler has visited, and so should you. Next morning, you'll need to head to the Blue Mesa Reservoir before the road closures take effect, so plan on an early day. Your visit in Ouray will be short, but once at the reservoir, take a stab at fishing or horseback riding.

WHERE TO EAT: The Ouray Brewery offers the only roof-top dining in town, but don’t miss out on the Monte Alta Dining Room & Saloon for the beer, dessert, and vibe.

HOW TO WATCH THE RACE: Get up fairly early and head over to the Blue Mesa Reservoir before the riders take-off.

RACE DAY SCHEDULE: The race begins at 11:25 a.m. and riders should reach the reservoir between 12:43 and 1:07 p.m.

The USA Pro Cycling Challenge: Stage 3

Gunnison to Aspen

The Maroon Bells outside of Asp
The Maroon Bells outside of Aspen (Molas/Wikimedia)

Not only is this the race’s queen stage, but it’s arguably one of the hardest days of racing in the U.S. First, the riders climb up the 14-mile-long Cottonwood Pass. Next, they descend into Buena Vista and begin the always-painful climb up Independence Pass. Last year, George Hincapie won the stage from a select group of riders with a courageous descent in the rain. You, however, won't be heading into Aspen; instead, you'll be enjoying the more laid-back town of Buena Vista. But, if you want to watch some of the best women's racing in the country and soak up the luxury of this former mining town, head into Aspen for the Blue Ribbon Alpine Challenge.

WHERE TO STAY: Find the Arrowhead Point Campground in Buena Vista, where you can choose from cabins or camping sites. Lots of people will jump ahead and spend the night in Aspen. But with the race passing through Buena Vista and the town loaded with great places to eat and camp, this is your best bet if you're looking to get off the beaten path. If you're in dire need of the luxury Aspen experience, try out the Hyatt Grand Aspen for it's incredible rooms.

WHAT TO DO: Head over to Whitewater Park, the premier whitewater park in Colorado and go tubing. You won’t be disappointed. If you’re in the mood to punish yourself, there are four 14ers in the surrounding area. Mt. Yale would make more than a challenging diversion. If you're in Aspen, take the bus and make the hike up to the Maroon Bells as long or as short as you'd like. Either way, it won't disappoint. Just don't be surprised if you spot a mountain goat or some nudists at the hot spring.

WHERE TO EAT: For lunch in Buena Vista, there’s no question: The Evergreen Café. You'll have more options than you can handle in Aspen, but Peach's Corner Cafe has some of the best eggs in town.

HOW TO WATCH THE RACE: If you’re ready to ride, tackle Cottonwood Pass (it will not be open to cars). It’s an all-day affair, so come prepared with warm clothing and some snacks. The ride will be well worth it; you’ll catch the early-stage action and have a great descent back into town after the race passes through. If you’re without your bike, stake out a spot in town for when the racers pass by, preferably near the sprint line.

RACE DAY SCHEDULE: Racing begins at 10:10 a.m. Riders will be at the top of Cottonwood Pass between 12:36 and 12:02 p.m. and in Buena Vista between 1:34 and 12:46 p.m.

The USA Pro Cycling Challenge: Stage 4

Aspen to Beaver Creek

Beaver Creek is adjacent to the
Beaver Creek is adjacent to the Holy Cross Wilderness (CoMtMan/Wikimedia)

Stage 3 may have been long, but Stage 4 will be brutal. The riders begin by climbing over Independence Pass. From there, they descend into Leadville—the highest incorporated city in the U.S.—then to Minturn, and finally climb up Beaver Creek, a finish that could again change up the leaderboard. Stage 4 not be the queen stage for the racers, but it certainly is for spectators.

WHERE TO STAY: Camp at Turquoise Lake in Leadville. The views are stunning, and you’ll be perfectly positioned for the day’s action.

WHAT TO DO: If you’re into golf, play a few holes at the Mount Massive Golf Course, the highest course in North America, with some of the most stunning views in the state. The golfing may be marginal, but the scenery is no less than spectacular. That evening, catch the free Jazz Foundation concert in Vail or catch a movie and dinner at CineBistro. While the tickets are pricey, you get unlimited refills on Coke and popcorn. If you're a glutton, it's the way to go; you'll more than break even.

WHERE TO EAT: Your day should be built around food. Breakfast is to be had at the Proving Grounds Coffee and Bakery. It’s cozy and historic, plus the coffee is good and the berry tarts are incredible. For lunch, you have no choice but to visit Manuelitas Restaurant for the best fish tacos known to man. They’re super cheap, incredibly simple, and unbelievably delicious. Order them as part of the combination plate, pair them with a Coke, and you’ll be in heaven. For dinner near Beaver Creek, head to Agave and continue with the Mexican food theme. If you’re looking for a high-end dinner in what appears to be a castle, look no further than Splendido. Or, go over to the dark side, avoid the Beaver Creek crowds, and eat dinner in Vail at the Sweet Basil. It's a pricey menu, but the burger isn't a bad value. And the desserts always surprise.

HOW TO WATCH THE RACE: If you’re up for some early-morning driving, speed into Aspen and nab a primo spot on Independence Pass. You’ll get to see the riders summit the race’s hardest climb. But if you’re in for a leisurely morning at Turquoise Lake, you can stay in Leadville until around 2:00 p.m. (when the riders are set to arrive) and make it to Beaver Creek, possibly with a quick stop at the Minturn Saloon, before the riders finish.

RACE DAY SCHEDULE: Racing begins at 11:35 a.m. and riders arrive in Beaver Creek at 3:50 p.m.

The USA Pro Cycling Challenge: Stage 5

Breckenridge to Colorado Springs

Hanging Lake
Hanging Lake

The finish in Colorado Springs is fit for a sprinter. While the day begins with a 10-mile climb up Hoosier Pass, it’s mostly level after that, covering 117.9 miles total. A small breakaway could steal the show, but expect the sprinters to show their heads after all of the climbing. Instead of staying in Beaver Creek after the finish or heading to Breckenridge, make the move to Vail and get ready for an action-packed morning.

WHERE TO STAY: Stay at the Sitzmark Lodge in Vail because it’s not worth the drive into Breckenridge after the finish on day four, and staying in Beaver Creek puts you further away from the far-superior food and lodging options Vail has to offer. The Sitzmark is the best value in Vail proper, but it’s no Motel 6. If you want to camp, the Gore Creek Campground is a great option near town.

WHAT TO DO: You won’t have much time in Vail in the morning, so maximize it by getting some delicious food and taking the gondola up the mountain for breathtaking views. If you have your bike, a ride up the car-free Vail Pass will take you on the same roads the race covered in 2011—time yourself against the likes of Cadel Evans and Greg Lemond. And if you’re ready for an early and action-packed morning, bang out the quick hike to Hanging Lake, one of the most spectacular lakes you'll ever visit (be sure to protect the site by staying out of the water and off the logs); stop by the country's largest hot spring pool in Glenwood Springs. Once you’re in Colorado Springs, make it to the Garden of the Gods to check out the famous rock formations.

WHERE TO EAT: Coffee at Yeti’s Grind. Don’t get fooled by the chains, Yeti’s Grind is all-local and features some of the best cappuccinos in the state. Also, their scones are some of the most buttery and delicious treats you’ll find, not just in Vail but anywhere (blueberry is best). You won’t have time for lunch in Vail; you’ll be eating in Colorado Springs at La Baguette in the part of town know as Old Colorado City.

HOW TO WATCH THE RACE: After coffee and some outdoor activities in Vail, head to Colorado Springs by way of I-70 E and I-25 S before noon—leave earlier if you want more time for lunch in Colorado Springs.

RACE DAY SCHEDULE: Racing begins at 10:50 a.m. and should be over at 3:50 p.m.

The USA Pro Cycling Challenge: Stage 6

Golden to Boulder

Boulder's iconic Flatirons
Boulder's iconic Flatirons (Jesse Varner/Wikimedia)

Boulder is one of American cycling’s hotbeds, and Stage 6 will feature the same roads that most home-grown pros train on. After lapping through Golden twice, the race will proceed to Boulder and to the final 3.5-mile-long climb to Sunrise Amphitheater on Flagstaff Mountain. You, on the other hand, will finally have a more relaxed day watching both the start in Golden and finish in Boulder.

WHERE TO STAY: Camp at Golden Gate Canyon Park. It’s close enough to the course to make spectating easy, and only a quick drive from either Golden or Durango.

WHAT TO DO: Take the 30-minute-long tour of the MillerCoors Brewing Company and cool off in the fresh beer room while sipping samples on ice-cube benches. If you prefer tea to beer, head to the Dushanbe Teahouse, a present from Tajikistan and the only one of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. Mainly, just enjoy the shopping and ambiance on the car-free Pearl Street Mall.

WHERE TO EAT: Arugula Ristorante serves delicious Italian food in a casual environment, but Larkburger has some of the most delicious truffle fries and burgers you’ll find in Colorado at a great price. As always, they're best enjoyed with a chocolate shake. It's technically a super-hip environmentally-friendly fast-food joint, but it reinvents the term. If outdoor dining, people watching, and the community bistro feel is what you desire, look no further than The Kitchen.

HOW TO WATCH THE RACE: There’s enough time (and more importantly, road options) to both catch the start in Golden and finish in Boulder, even by bike.

RACE DAY SCHEDULE: Racing begins at 11:10 a.m. and ends at 3:45 p.m.

The USA Pro Cycling Challenge: Stage 7

Denver Time Trial

The Denver skyline
The Denver skyline (Hogs555/Wikimedia)

The race of truth comes to Denver, and it may just decide the tour's outcome. At 9.5 miles in length, the stage is probably too short for any rider to make up a large time gap, but it’s long enough to reshuffle the podium. While they sweat it out on the bike, you'll be having a luxury experience on Market Street.

WHERE TO STAY: The Oxford Hotel, because you deserve it after a week of camping. It’s located in the LoDo district near some of the city’s best food and practically around the corner from where the race will head.

WHAT TO DO: Walk the mall, check out the newly-built History Colorado Center (and be sure to walk through the mining exhibit), visit the futuristic-looking art museum, and head over to the massive REI to play in the water and relax at Fishback Landing Park.

WHERE TO EAT: For breakfast and lunch, there is no better place than the Marketplace. Get a smothered burrito and mug of coffee, and people watch in historic Larimer Square. Don’t forget a slice of their Spring Fling cake, either. It’s fruity, light, and simply delicious. If you have the time, rent a bike from one of the bike share stations and ride the path along Cherry Creek to the Cheery Creek Grill. While you’ll miss some of the race, their homemade veggie burger is worth it (go early to catch the leaders who will start last). And if you’re lucky, the artichoke will be in season. It pairs wonderfully with the prime rib sandwich, one of the best you’ll ever have. You’ll need a reservation, but Rioja is the place for dinner. They bill themselves as the best restaurant in town, and it's hard to disagree. Pick a starter, continue with the artichoke tortellini, and finish with the beignets.

HOW TO WATCH THE RACE: Between bites of burrito, watch the race from the LoDo district. Pick a corner and prepare to be amazed.

RACE DAY SCHEDULE: Racing begins at 1:00 p.m. and ends at 3:45 p.m.

Lead Photo: Courtsey USA Pro Cycling Challen