For 128 of the world’s best cyclists, the time has come once more to turn their wheels toward Colorado with one intention in mind: to suffer. Three years ago, cyclists first lined up for a week of tackling the peaks and valleys of the newest stage race in the nation. Despite the cloud of a doping scandal still looming over the sport and fallout fluctuations in team numbers and sponsorships, they’ll line up once more on Aug. 19 in Aspen for 599 miles of fight.
“To be a professional cyclist you have to be pretty tough, and anyone on the start line and getting to get to the finish of these races — whether they’re really featuring in the results or not — they have to have an amazing amount of mental fortitude,” says Benjamin Day, who’s riding in his second Pro Challenge for the UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team. “It’s not a sport that’s entirely enjoyable because it really, really hurts and you have to learn a way to shut that pain out of your mind or embrace it. It’s not something that takes a few minutes, it’s something that takes a few hours, and if you’re not in the right mindset, if you don’t have that mental strength to go combat the pain that you go through throughout the stage, then you’re not even going to survive in the sport.”
Once again, the U.S.A. Pro Challenge is drawing the best of the best — Olympians and National and World Champions, this year’s Tour de France winner. Each day in the 2012 race saw a new rider in the leader’s jersey and enough solo runs for the finish line and last-minute leader changes to leave even untrained cycling watchers gasping.
“We have an even more exciting field this year than last. We have the Tour de France winner, Chris Froome, who is just having a spectacular year racing in 2013, we’ve got the second-ranked rider in the world in points, Peter Sagan is coming, we’ve got all the top Americans, including last year’s Pro Challenge winner, Christian Vande Velde,” says Shawn Hunter, CEO of the Pro Challenge. “I think it’ll be our most competitive field, and now that people know the routes, I think you’re going to see the Europeans perform even better than they have in 2011 and 2012.”
Cyclists credit the race’s ability to become a star on the annual schedule to the surrounding snow-capped peaks, the stellar and challenging course that renews itself each year with new ways to guess at a winner a couple stages into a race and new chances for other riders to prove those guesses wrong a stage later. And, without fail, they credit the one thing Colorado has brought to the table in a way few other stage races in the world do: the spectators.
Last year, more than a million people watched the race in person, race organizers report. Host cities and mountain towns saw their population double or triple on race days.
“Outside the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Olympics, I’ve never seen crowds like this,” says Timmy Duggan, a USPRO National Champion on Team Saxo-Tinkoff this year. “Any time you’re racing in front of tens of thousands of fans, that definitely bumps up the enthusiasm and the desire to be here and compete. It’s just a world-class race, world-class terrain, something for everybody — that makes for some really difficult racing. … If you’re not here fully prepared and with your A game, you’re going to be way out the back.”
Duggan is one of about a dozen cyclists who train and live in the Boulder area and will compete in the Pro Challenge.
“The U.S. Pro Challenge is my home race,” Duggan says. “It’s in my backyard and I’m gonna have my friends and family and wife on the sidelines throughout the week. It definitely gives me extra motivation and an extra gear.”
“The Colorado fans, I think, are the best, whether they come from out of state or not; during the race, we’re so well-received and there’s such great support,” says Day, a native Australian and Boulder transplant as of six years ago. “I class this as my home state, for sure, and it’s a privilege to be at a race at home.”
“I think the past few years, it’s proven the best race for fans to attend — and best race for riders to attend because of that,” says Craig Lewis, a Boulder resident who rides for Champion System Pro Cycling Team. Lewis rode the first Pro Challenge on a left leg that still hadn’t healed from a break three months before. He expected only to ride a couple stages, then finished all seven days in hopes of drawing a contract with a new team — and he did.
But it’s not just fun to compete in your own backyard. It’s an advantage.
“If you just kind of head into things blindly, you might be caught off guard, you might not realize you have to push yourself just an extra two minutes and you’re there, you might just give up and then your day’s over,” Lewis says. “You can see how the race is playing out and then pair that with knowing what’s ahead and gauge your effort a little better. ... You can’t really put a price on that knowledge.”
To great dismay, the race organizers decided not to repeat the stage in Boulder this year.
“The talk is to maybe do it every other year, very similar to how the Tour de France treats Alpe d’Huez, which is their famous stage — they don’t do that every year,” Hunter says. “It keeps it exciting and fresh.”
Instead, this year’s Stage Six tours the northern Front Range highways, starting in Loveland and heading west to climb Big Thompson Canyon and the race’s final King of the Mountains competition at Devils Gulch before looping near Estes Park and rolling past Horsetooth Reservoir to finish in Fort Collins.
“They have promoted extremely well, they have been very easy to work with and there are so many riders up there,” Hunter says. “I think that will be a monstrous day from a crowd standpoint.”
While Boulder-based cyclists say, yeah, it’s a bit of a bummer to skip Boulder, it’ll help keep that stage a fresh, and prestigious, one (and perhaps Duggan’s teammate Rory Sutherland, who launched a solo attack up Flagstaff that saw him winning the stage, is a bit grateful to give his legs a year off from that particular project).
“There’s a few of us who are living here in Boulder, so we’re definitely a little bit extra motivated to perform,” Day says. “But it is a super hard race and unique in the fact that the stages are so high.”
The stage into Beaver Creek, which starts in Steamboat Springs, rolls to State Bridge, then sends riders off on a relentless climb up Bachelor Gulch, with inclines of up to 18 percent, followed by a technical descent and then two more kilometers of climbing to the finish line in Beaver Creek (totals are 102.9 miles and 11,627 feet of climbing), may be the toughest ever for the Pro Challenge.
“I think a really cool aspect about the route this year is there’s no real guarantees. The routes are pretty lumpy the whole way, and there’s no stage that’s a guaranteed field sprint or a guaranteed summit finish climb where it all blows apart. It’s kind of anything can happen,” says Duggan, who’s just getting back into competitive gear after breaking a leg in his first race of the season. “If it’s anything like last year, where the riding is super-aggressive from start to finish every day, I think we’re going to see some exciting racing. So I’ll certainly be keeping my eye out for a breakaway opportunity.”
Earlier this month, Boulder’s Tom Danielson surged ahead of Chris Horner to finish the final stage of the Tour of Utah just a minute and a half ahead of Horner — the two cyclists had been tied going into the stage — and took the overall win. While Horner heads off to Spain for the Vuelta a Espaņa, Danielson, who lives in Boulder, will be lining his wheels up for the Pro Cycling Challenge.
Lucas Euser was just off the back wheels of Horner and Danielson during the Tour of Utah, and finished fourth.
“I’m definitely going to carry that form into Colorado,” Euser says. “The Pro Challenge has a lot to offer this year. It’s a better course for someone like myself who likes going uphill.”
Euser, who rides for UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team, has his eye on stages two and four — stages other riders have been looking at and calling brutal.
“The finishes in Breckenridge and Beaver Creek are probably two of the hardest finishes we’ve seen in the race,” he says. “So it’s going to be exciting.”
The sport itself is still facing the fallout of cyclists taking the desire to produce the best possible results to the point of using illegal methods to get ahead.
“U.S. racing — cycling in general — has definitely taken a hit with everything that’s come to light in the last year and a half, and it makes it tough on everybody,” says Michael Friedman, a multiple time U.S. champion and 2008 Olympian riding for Optum in the Pro Challenge.
Race officials do everything they can to test for doping, Hunter says, and while the announcements in January may feel recent, they were about activities that were eight to 10 years old.
“It’s certainly a new generation,” Duggan says. “I wouldn’t be racing if I didn’t think I could be successful clean and I know I share that view with everybody in my generation. I’m lucky to be coming up in the sport at this time, and a lot of us, we never had to make those difficult decisions. … I hope the fans and the public have faith in us because it’s certainly a different generation.”
Teams are now faced with sorting out the best diets and aerodynamics for individual riders, honing their training plans and building up teamwork. The results of that mean it’s not just a good day for clean cyclists to be competing, it’s a great day for spectators, who get to watch competitors jostle for their position in far more competitive fields — fields where it’s anyone’s game.
“You can see everybody’s level is so close these days,” Lewis says. “I think everybody’s level is just stepped up, and especially in the U.S. everybody is just getting that much stronger. Before European races were where everything was at and the difficulty level was a lot higher, but I think the U.S. has really caught up to that.”
“We think this is the absolute best time to be in the sport,” Hunter says.
With the doping scandals hopefully behind the sport, cyclists are looking to rebuild — and renew their image as the kind of athletes sponsors want representing their brands. Races like the Pro Challenge bring the necessary attention to those athletes for their sponsors to keep supporting the teams.
“We feel that we’ve got the best field that we’ve ever had, in terms of both the international athletes and the Americans, we feel blessed to have the field that we do, and I think the credit goes back to Colorado,” Hunter says. “The only race in the world that has bigger crowds than this one is the Tour de France. … There’s not a better place in America to do something like this.”
And while the towns ready their banners and prep their streets for the crowds and temporary closures, it’s in the quiet that the riders themselves will rest and ready for a week’s worth of nothing ventured, nothing gained.
“If you’re not out there risking everything, then you’re not going to accomplish anything. That’s the beauty of the sport,” Lewis says. “Everybody literally has a chance to win. It just depends on the risk they’re willing to take and what they’re willing to put in.”
Boulder-area riders participating in the USA Pro Challenge include:
Christopher Baldwin (Bissell Pro Cycling)
Matt Cooke (Jamis-Hagens Berman p/b Sutter Home)
Tom Danielson (Team Garmin-Sharp)
Benjamin Day (UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team)
Timothy Duggan (Team Saxo-Tinkoff)
Lucas Euser (UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team)
Michael Friedman (Optum presented by Kelly Benefit Strategies)
Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing)
Carter Jones (Bissell Pro Cycling)
Craig Lewis (Champion System Pro Cycling Team)
Kiel Reijnen (UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team)
Rory Sutherland (Team Saxo-Tinkoff)
Nathan Wilson (Bontrager Cycling Team)
Tom Zirbel (Optum presented by Kelly Benefit Strategies)
Know of a Boulder-area rider we missed? Alert Elizabeth Miller on Twitter at @Elizabeth_MSM.
Race details, including spectator guides, are available at www.usaprocyclingchallenge.com.