The US Pro Cycling Challenge (aka Tour of Colorado) is an American cyclist’s dream come true. All three riders who podiumed in this year’s Tour de France – Australia’s Cadel Evans, and Luxembourg brothers Frank and Andy Schleck – are competing. Add famed riders such as Italian Ivan Bosso and Americans George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer, and quite frankly, you’ve got one hell of a field.
Then there is the course. Officially the Tour of Colorado has six stages, plus the Prologue – the term used for the first day. In the seven consecutive days of competition, the competitors will ride 509.2 miles and climb 29,036 vertical feet.
The race began in Colorado Springs Monday, with the Prologue, an individual time trial. The tour’s second and final time trial takes place Thursday during Stage 4, putting riders to the test up Vail Pass.
Multi-stage races are meant to test the field in speed, endurance and climbing. Riders who excel in time trials may not be as good on long, mountain passes, and vice versa. The winner has the fastest cumulative time from all of the stages.
In this race, the time trials are relatively short, five and ten miles respectively, but the stages are relentless, with grueling sustained climbs taking riders up to 12,000 feet.
It isn’t always apparent to the novice spectator, but bike racing involves tremendous strategy and teamwork. In the long stages, teammates “work,” in the form of protecting their top rider (think Lance Armstrong, Alberto Cantador, Cadel Evans), so he can conserve energy until an opportune moment arises in which he can break away from the pack for a win.
“The group dynamic is very interesting,” Telluride resident, cycling enthusiast and former mountain bike mechanic for the Volvo/Cannondale team Eric Wolff said Tuesday after the first stage, in Crested Butte. “There are individual winners, but they don’t get there without the team.”
Riders form a pack called the “peloton,” from which it takes discipline and skill, and sometimes a bit of luck, to successfully break away. By working together to build peak momentum, the peloton distributes the “work” between more riders, allowing everyone in it to ride faster for longer.
To the bystander, being passed by a peloton can feel like being passed by a train.
Tuesday’s stage, a 99.4 mile ride from Salida to Mt. Crested Butte, with a total of 8,020 feet of vertical climbing, was a lesson in the power of the peloton. Early in the stage, three riders broke away from the pack, and by mile 25 had built a five-minute lead. It wasn’t until 15 miles left in the stage that the peloton inevitably caught them, consciously and confidently, as it always does.
As the peloton climbed toward Mt. Crested Butte and the finish, different groups attacked, but with veteran riders like Lepeheimer and Cadel in front, they were absorbed.
“The race favorites swallowed the breakaway,” Wolff recounted. “I really wonder how fast they were going. It was unbelievable, watching them pass the breakaway guys, just leaving them in the dust.”
In the final yards, Leipheimer successfully outclimbed the group to win the stage; Sergio Luis Montoya of Columbia placed second, and Frank Schleck third. The winners of the day were announced at Mt. Crested Butte Tuesday, to a festive crowd.
The racers, on the other hand, were all business, as they still had five stages left, and a lot of climbing ahead of them.
“Frank [Schleck] is sitting in 11th, but tomorrow he’ll move up because he’s a pure climber,” Wolff predicted after Tuesday’s Stage. “A lot of the guys from Columbia and places where they are used to training in high altitude – they are going to move up tomorrow.”
Wednesday’s stage, termed the Queen Stage because of its difficulty, has competitors riding over two 12,000 foot passes. The stage begins in Gunnison, demanding riders to climb 13.7 miles to the top of Cottonwood Pass at 12,126 feet. And, to add a little twist, or perhaps to make the race feel more European, the pass turns to dirt for the last part of the climb.
From Cottonwood Pass, riders will see a fast and difficult descent before climbing again, this time up Independence Pass to 12,095 feet.
The stage ends in Aspen for a total of 131.1 miles and 9,746 feet of climbing; for Wednesday’s race results and more, visit watchnewspapers.com for updates throughout the race.
The exciting element of bike racing is that each new day brings a new stage, and each new stage brings an opportunity. Thursday’s stage definitely has the potential to shake up the results, bringing the field to Vail and to yet another climb, but this one shorter, and in the form of a time trial. Here, as in the Prologue, competitors ride alone, and are separated by 60-second start intervals.
“You know that [time trial] is where Cadel separates himself,” Wolff said. “In the Tour de France he was right there with the Schlecks and then came the time trial. He humiliated them in the Tour [de France] if you ask me.”
After Vail, the course continues relentlessly. On Friday, Stage 4 takes riders 82.8 mile from Avon to Steamboat Springs, with 5,034 vertical feet of climbing.
And it seemingly never ends, with Saturday’s Stage 5 at 105.2 miles, with 8,327 feet of vertical climbing.
The race ends in Denver on Sunday. The final stage will begin in Golden, and promises to be a great place for spectators, as the riders will pass the starting point three times. The course loops riders around Golden and up Lookout Mountain before sending the pack toward Denver. In Denver racers will take six laps around a five-mile loop, before finishing in front of the Capitol Building.
This is the first year of the US Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado, but if the excitement in Crested Butte Tuesday was any indicator of its reception, it will be welcome for many years to come. It’s not every day in the US that you get to stand on a mountain pass with fellow bike fans, waiting to cheer on the world’s top riders.
Until now, it seemed like something they only did in France.