One stage to rule them all

USA Pro Cycling Challenge brings the competition home for Boulder cyclists

Photo by Doug Pensinger

The USA Pro Cycling Challenge will spend a week pitting cyclist against cyclist for top rank in a race that claims to be one of the world’s toughest. But when the bike tires turn toward Boulder on Aug. 25 for the last stage of racing before the final time trial in Denver, the race will become personal for a few of its riders.

The Pro Cycling Challenge covers 683 miles, with more than 42,000 feet of climbing in seven days. Of 126 competitors from 24 countries, more than a dozen claim Boulder as home. They’ve ridden its roads and trained in the hills and canyons that fill out the sixth stage of the race. Stage six, one of the event’s most challenging, takes Highway 93 to Boulder from the starting line in Golden, loops downtown, then ascends to Nederland through Boulder Canyon, traverses the Peak to Peak Highway, drops into Lyons, climbs Left Hand Canyon Drive in a King of the Mountain stage, then rips down Lee Hill Road before taking Broadway to Baseline for a finish on Flagstaff Mountain. The total stats come to 103.3 miles and 10,030 feet of climbing. And while he who wins stage six may not win the overall race, he’ll certainly have bragging rights in this cycling community.

“There’s a good handful of guys that really want that stage. … It’ll be the unofficial championship of Boulder, so we’ll hopefully get an all-Boulder podium on that stage,” says Timmy Duggan, cyclist on the 2012 Olympic team and 2012 World Champion, who will ride for Team Liquigas Cannondale. If it did happen to be an all-Boulder podium, it wouldn’t be the first of the year. This year’s USA Cycling Pro Road Race, in which Duggan took gold, saw the top three positions go to Boulder cyclists.

When he turns up Boulder Canyon, Duggan will be riding toward his home in Nederland, toward a rack of fluorescent green t-shirts that read “Go Timmy Duggan” that are for sale at Tin Shed Sports and a banner cheering for him that faces the roundabout.

“It’s just a dream come true,” Duggan says. “As an athlete, as a cyclist, I spend so much time on the road in unfamiliar places and countries competing there, it’s nice to have that same kind of racing, but in my own backyard.”

Not that time abroad has been a bad thing. Duggan competed in the London Olympics road race, accomplishing a goal he’s had in mind since the beginning of his sporting career, which started as an alpine ski racer at Eldora. At the Olympics, as in the Pro Cycling Challenge, he’ll be in the company of the boy with the golden cycling genes, Taylor Phinney — whose parents were Olympians — and Tejay Van Garderen, both Boulder residents.

“Like everyone knows, it’s our hometown race, a lot of Boulder residents here are competing in it,” says Chris Baldwin, who announced shortly after joining Bissell Pro Cycling that the Pro Cycling Challenge was a priority for him. He finished 15th in 2011, the Challenge’s inaugural year. “It’s a dream come true for us to be racing in our home state and kind of showcasing our roads to the rest of the world.”

Baldwin turned pro in 1999 and moved to Boulder the year after. Last year, he finished second in the Tour de Toona and third in the Redlands Bicycle Classic. In 2012, he was seventh in the Tour of the Gila, same as 2011, and placed in top five in stages 1 and 3 of the Cascade Cycling Classic.

Many of the Pro Cycling Challenge riders spent a week in early August riding the Tour of Utah, another multistage race that runs them up and down mountains.

“It’s part of a big block of high-quality North American racing right now,” says Duggan, who took third place in a King of the Mountain portion of the Tour of Utah. “Quite a few of the world’s best riders are here.”

While he’s been riding with those elite cyclists all year long, Duggan says it’s nice to have them in the U.S.

“The stage where it finishes in Boulder, I probably know every pothole on the whole road, and having that intimate knowledge of the road is probably an advantage,” he says. “We race in their backyard all the time, so it’s nice to come have them race in my backyard.”

For Van Garderen, who finished third in last year’s Pro Cycling Challenge, it’s not his backyard. It’s his front yard — literally. The course passes by the front door of the home he recently purchased with his wife, Jessica Van Garderen.

“It’s so nice for them riding, and also for families, because otherwise we’d have to be in Europe this whole time,” Jessica Van Garderen says. “But with having the Colorado race we get to come back to Colorado and Tejay and Taylor and Timmy, all their families get to watch.”

Tejay Van Garderen in the 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge | Photo by Doug Pensinger

And while knowing the roads is nice, Van Garderen says he’ll also enjoy having friends and family there to cheer.

“You definitely want to do your best because they don’t always have the opportunity to see me race, and this will be the perfect opportunity to see me race,” he says. “You’re going to want to do your best in this one chance that they have to see you.”

He’s shooting for the absent element from his season: a first place.

“That’s definitely the goal. That’s kind of the only thing missing from my season so far would be a win, and if I could get that in my home state, then that would be incredible,” he says.

His showings in the Tour de France earned him a white jersey — the mark of the best young rider. Van Garderen finished 104th overall in the Olympics.

“This has definitely been a race that’s been on my mind all year. The big challenge is to come fit and fresh after such big goals as the Tour and the Olympics, but I’m feeling good and I’m super-motivated,” he says. “And I definitely want to give my hometown of Boulder, Colo., a good show.”

At age 24 in a field where the defending champion of the Pro Cycling Challenge, Levi Leipheimer, is 38, Van Garderen is likely to have time to stack up plenty of them.

An all-Boulder podium is possible, if not probable, cyclists say.

“It’s definitely possible — I’d say that’s a long shot, but it’s pretty crazy that it’s even a possibility,” Baldwin says. “Some of the best guys in the world are definitely in Boulder now. … Some of the younger guys who have come up through the ranks here now are coming into their own, and they’re hitting their top form and they’re some of the best riders in the world now. It’s a really exciting time for Colorado.”

 A starting line in the 2011 Pro Cycling Challenge | Photo by Doug Pensinger

That list has to include, obviously Phinney, but also University of Colorado alum, Boulder resident and Bissell Pro Cycling rider Carter Jones, who’s also finished a few races winning the “Best Young Rider,” including the 2012 Cascade Cycling Classic, where he finished second overall — up from ninth in 2011.

In a phone interview with Boulder Weekly just before the start of the Utah race, Jones said he was taking the races one at a time and not reading too far ahead at the stages that waited after the Tour of Utah — namely, those in the Pro Cycling Challenge.

“To be honest, I haven’t really looked at the stages yet, still being two weeks out,” he says. “Don’t want to psych myself out too much, knowing how hard the stages are going to be. I’m definitely looking forward to the Boulder stage and the Flagstaff finish.”

He knows the roads well, he says, though not the exact route for stage six — a winding circuit of a thing surely devised as a torture fest — and either way, it’s still going to be challenging.

“The stage is so hard, it’s kind of, either you have it or you don’t,” he says.

Fellow Bissell Pro Cycling rider Frank Pipp, 2012 winner of the Boulder Roubaix, shared similar views on stage six.

“Of course anyone that lives here in Boulder will be excited to do well, but it comes down to the legs, and on day six, some people have the legs and some people won’t,” he says. “You also have to be a climber. That day we’re going to finish up at Flagstaff and it doesn’t matter how excited I am for it, I’m more of a sprinter, I’m not going to get to the line first. I have all the motivation in the world with my wife and my baby watching, but you have to have the skill set.”

The stage he really has his eye on is stage five which drops from Breckenridge into Colorado Springs — after a 10-mile climb over Hoosier Pass — and is billed as a good opportunity for sprinters like Pipp. But coming through Boulder, where he and his wife have their home, will also be special, he says.

In May, the 2012 USA Cycling Pro Road Race had a trio of Boulder County residents on the podium: Duggan with gold, Pipp with silver and Kiel Riejnen of Team Type 1 with bronze. Van Garderen snagged silver in the time trial component of that race.

Though it’s not his home turf, Pro Cycling Challenge’s defending champion Levi Leipheimer says he found the welcome mat ready last year and hopes to come back to defend this year with his teammates.

“Colorado is a beautiful place with literally breathtaking courses that will take us over 12,000-foot passes,” he said in a statement released by the Omega Pharma Quickstep team’s press officer. “Last year the support from the fans was incredible and rivaled the Grand Tours in Europe. I can’t wait to experience it again.”

“I’m just thrilled that the event is continuing and hopefully picking up momentum,” Baldwin says. “The support last year, it just blew the doors off any event in the U.S. period, in my opinion, but certainly any event for the first year just completely exceeded any expectations, I think, as far as the fanfare and people coming out to support it. I’m almost worried that to grow on that is almost difficult because it was such a ground-breaking event the first year, so I really just hope it can continue to pick up momentum and that people continue to support it and enjoy watching it.”

Baldwin continues, “Even living in Boulder here, being a professional cyclist, I was still completely blown away by the level of excitement for the race,” Baldwin says. “And that’s just an honor and I’m grateful that I live in that state, that people support it like that.”