Tom Danielson leads the pack up
Tom Danielson leads the pack up the pass (Photo: Getty Images)

Previewing the USA Pro Cycling Challenge

Though the course of this race, which starts Monday, lacks a defining uphill finish, the strong field of contenders should make for exciting racing.

Tom Danielson leads the pack up

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The USA Pro Challenge resumes its meteoric ascension to one of the most important bike races in the country when the third edition kicks off in Aspen on Monday. Even though it overlaps with the Vuelta a España, the event continues to draw some of the top talent in the peloton, partly because, for many pros building toward the World Championships in late September, the weeklong format is preferable to the difficult, mountainous third grand tour of the season.

High turnout and solid organization has also endeared the USAPC to racers. Fans lined the roads on every stage last year, and many racers and directors remarked that few events in Europe attract as big or passionate of crowds.

This year’s race will see as strong a field as ever, with seven Pro Tour teams, including the premiere U.S. appearance of the Team Sky powerhouse. The British outfit isn’t sending the B-team, either, as Tour de France champion Chris Froome and super domestique Richie Porte will both be riding. Cannondale’s Peter Sagan is also racing and, judging by the nearly two weeks of preparation he’s done at altitude ahead of the event, he’s hoping for a repeat performance of his previous U.S. successes, including eight stage wins and three green jerseys in three years at the Tour of California.

Other big international names in attendance include Andy Schleck, Andreas Klöden, and crowd-favorite Jens Voigt of Radioshack, Team Saxo’s Michael Rogers, and Greg Van Avermaet, Mathias Frank, and Michael Schär from BMC.

In spite of the firepower, the 2013 edition lacks the punchy course design of last year’s race. There are no big summit finishes to shake up the GC like 2012’s trip up Boulder’s Flagstaff Mountain, so the winning margin should be very tight. And while that might sound boring, it’s actually good for spectators as teams will have to fight for time at every chance, just as Garmin-Slipstream did last year when they attacked from the gun almost daily.

The lack of decisive climbing finishes aside, the two successive sharp rises at the line in Beaver Creek on Stage 4 and the 15-percent grade on Moonstone Road just before Stage 2’s downhill finish in Breckenridge should be enough to keep it exciting.

Between the big names and the taut racing, the 2013 USAPC should be as fun to watch as in previous years. And if the monsoonal flow that has been battering the state with thunderstorms persists through the week and douses the course in the afternoons, the race could be even more unpredictable and exciting.

What to Watch
There is no shortage of great stages for spectating, including the hard, hilly Aspen circuit on Stage 1 and the eight-lap criterium around downtown Denver on Stage 7 that’s certain to be a flat-out drag race. Both days give fans that rare chance to see pro cyclists multiple times in a single stage.

Organizers have also brought back a couple of the most iconic passes, including Independence on Stage 2 and Rabbit Ears on Stage 3, which always make for great spectating. In previous editions of the race, both of these passes have provided Tour de France-worthy crowds and a festival atmosphere that makes a trip out worth it apart from the opportunity to see the racers. Likewise, the finales of Stage 2 in Beaver Creek and Stage 6 in Fort Collins should be entertaining from a sheer chaos of humanity standpoint, not to mention the Beaver Creek is the only uphill mass finish in the entire race.

Perhaps the most rewarding stage to watch will be the iconic Stage 5 time trial up Vail Pass, which has its roots all the way back to the Coors Classic in the early 1980s and appeared in the inaugural edition of the USAPC. That year, Levi Leipheimer eked out the win over Christian Vande Velde by an infinitesimal 0.58 seconds, a margin he held all the way to the overall win two days later in Denver. The differences could be just as tight this year, and the stage results should very likely mirror the final GC standings. But no matter how it plays out, this stage is a great one to watch because you can pack a picnic and ride up the pass for a full day of cyclotourism.

Who to Watch
Americans have dominated the first two editions of the USAPC, partly because the high altitude and rigorous travel schedule to get here works against visiting racers. However, Team Sky could reverse that trend.

Though the course is almost tailor-made for Chris Froome, with the combination of plenty of climbing and the uphill time trial at Vail, this will be the Brit’s first return to racing since his Tour victory and he’s very likely to be a bit off his best. Instead, our money is on Richie Porte. He proved at the Tour that he’s nearly as versatile as his team leader, and Froome may well be willing to share some spoils with the Aussie for having ceded his own chances in July. Sky has won almost every single stage race they’ve entered this year (and last!), and judging by their stacked roster, including young American phenom Joe Dombrowksi, it’s clear they aren’t intending to break that streak in Colorado.

But the race is unlikely to be a British coronation if the Americans have anything to say about it. Garmin Sharp is fielding an incredibly deep team and has made no secret of the fact that they are here to defend their 2012 title. Last year’s winner, Christian Vande Velde, is the man to beat if he’s at his best—and he’s especially motivated given his imminent retirement—but his form is a question mark as he’s still rebuilding from back-to-back crashes that forced him out of the Tour de France.

Should Vande Velde falter, both Tom Danielson, hot off his win at last week’s Tour of Utah, and Andrew Talansky, who rode to an impressive 10th place at his Tour de France debut last month, both have what it takes to win. And with the likes of David Millar, Dave Zabriskie, Thomas Dekker, and up-and-comers Rohan Dennis and Lachlan Morton for support, Garmin is arguably the strongest team in the race.

BMC doesn’t have quite the firepower of Garmin, but they too are strong and have to be counted among the favorites with Tejay van Garderen at the helm. Having placed third in 2011 and second in 2012, the Washingtonian must be itching to stamp his name on this race. And he’s probably doubly motivated after his lackluster showing at the Tour de France.

Beyond these favorites are a few dark horses, who could mix up the overall standings but are unlikely—though not out of the question—to win. Colombians Janier Acevedo, who took second at the Tour of Utah last week, and Darwin Atapuma should be at home with the elevation. Aussie Michael Rogers, who won the 2010 Tour of California and took second this year, showed promising form riding in a support role at the Tour de France last month. And even Andy Schleck could do something, though from what we’ve seen he’s generally more interested in fishing than in racing when he comes to Colorado.

Lead Photo: Getty Images