With the USA Pro Cycling Challenge showcasing Colorado's Rocky Mountains it is easy to understand why many feel this will most likely be a climber's race. But with several passes topping out at over 12,000 feet above sea level, altitude will also play a significant factor in determining the champion of the seven day, 518-mile event.
"I think the altitude will be a big shock to a lot of Europeans especially if they are Tour de France stars," said Andy Hampsten who lived and trained in Colorado when he wasn't winning races in Europe. "When they start getting into select groups and there are Americans and US-based Americans hanging out with them it can be demoralizing for Euro stars."
Garmin-Cervelo rider Pete Stetina agrees: "It [altitude] is the biggest factor. I have seen 180lb dudes drop 150lb guys just because they were acclimatized and the lighter guy wasn't. Once you hit that redline, you just don't recover at the same rate. You really have to measure out your effort at altitude."
How will the European pros perform? "I think a few guys are going to come over early. It depends on how early and how well they acclimate," said Stetina.
Hampsten agrees. "I think Europeans can deal with the altitude. It would be best if the teams came a week ahead of time. If they do the Tour of Utah beforehand then they will be acclimated."
All that altitude doesn't come without some climbing. Looking at the individual stages and their profiles reveals that there is something for everybody from climbers to time trialists to sprinters.
The prologue, in Colorado Springs, is five miles, starting at the Garden of the Gods State Park and finishing downtown. While the course is predominately downhill, the GC contenders will have to perform well here. "It's [the race for the overall] going to be about seconds so the prologue now becomes important," said Stetina.
Stage 1, 100 miles from Salida to Crested Butte begins with the climb over Monarch Pass. The summit, at 11,315 above sea level, comes after a 13 mile ascent which gains 3250 feet, but the pass comes way too early in the stage to provide a shake-up in the overall classification. The second, and final, climb of the stage, to Crested Butte Mountain Resort ski area, offers the only mountain top finish of the entire race and could be decisive.
"From Gunnison to the city of Crested Butte it is along a river like 1%, dragging along forever. It's not an actual climb. But, when you get to the city of Crested Butte, we actually finish at the ski resort. It is a big, wide road so it almost doesn't feel like a steep climb, but it kicks pretty well for 3km or so," explained Stetina.
Will this be the decisive climb of the race? "It is not big enough to make massive time gaps, but there are going to be some seconds there for sure," adds Stetina.
The queen stage of the race, stage 2, is 133 miles from Gunnison to Aspen. It crosses two passes over 12,000 feet, Cottonwood and Independence, with the whole stage at or above 8000 feet above sea level.
Cottonwood Pass climbs 2740' in 13.7 miles for an average gradient of 6.5% and tops out at 12,196 feet about sea level - the highest point of the whole race. "I think it is an excellent, excellent first climb for an epic stage. It's not steep. It's very well graded. It's a nice dirt road. Bike handling skills aren't going to be called upon in the least. It’s not a terribly hard climb that will shatter the field," said Hampsten.
The second and final climb, Independence Pass, climbs 2900 feet in 18 miles from Twin Bridges to its summits at 12,095 feet above sea level. "It's more the altitude than anything else which makes it difficult. It has some steep sections, for sure. But, you are not dealing with 15% incline or anything like that. You are dealing with the altitude and you lose a lot of power at that altitude," said Chris Horner.
It's 20 miles from the top to the finish in Aspen. Can a solo rider hold his advantage to the line? "Nope. Not by themselves. If you have three guys chasing behind they are going to catch you. You are going to need a lot of time going over the top. You have to pedal that whole descent and there are some sections which are either flat or climbs back up a bit," said Horner.
The next day, stage 3, is the Vail Pass time trial, a long time fixture of the Coors Classic race which brought top European pros to Colorado in the 1980's. "I think that is where the GC is decided because you have such a long descent over Independence. I think there will be a small group there and you have to be in it, but the Vail TT is where the actual time gaps are going to happen," said Stetina.
The 10-mile course climbs 1780 feet, but that statistic belies the true nature of the stage. "The first half is flat on the frontage road, maybe 1% then flat then 2%. Then you cross under the highway and go up old Vail Pass so the second half is the climb. It's an uphill TT, but there is a long enough flat where aerodynamics still matter," said Stetina.
"It's a hill climb, but you can warm up on the flats then just really ramp it up as the slope gets steeper near the end. You have to hit that flat part super fast. Then float a little bit just before the hill and then hit the hill really hard and accelerate up to about two miles to go and then try and hold it," said Hampsten who broke Bernard Hinault's course record to win the stage in 1987. Australian Ben Day holds the current course record of 25:48 set during the Teva Mountain Games in 2008.
"You will have good times by a pure climber, but it still favors a time trialer, I think. A time trialer who can climb like Levi [Leipheimer]. That time trial is built for him," said Stetina.
Stage 4 from Avon to Steamboat Springs offers 83 miles of rolling terrain with no significant climbs and looks to be a day for stage hunters or the sprinters.
Stage 5, 105 miles from Steamboat to Breckenridge also appears to be benign. The 3000 foot ascent of Rabbit Ears Pass is tackled at the start and then there is a long gentle climb from Kremmling to the Dillon/Silverthorne/Keystone area. "You could see a breakaway of riders down on GC, but there won't be a shake-up unless there is a crosswind, which could happen," said Hampsten.
"You do have that little kicker, Swan Mountain, that goes from Keystone to Breckenridge. That's a real climb. That's solid. That will get rid of a lot of guys, but you still have the drag up to Breckenridge. You can't really solo in, but on Swan Mountain, you need to be up there," adds Stetina.
The sixth, and final, stage 73 miles from Golden to Denver features the iconic climb of Lookout Mountain Road. The 4.5 mile, 1350 foot ascent is a favorite with the locals. "Even though it comes early in the stage it is not that far from the finish. It almost looks to me like they put it in for a KOM battle than a GC battle. If things aren't sorted out in the KOM before the final day then you will see a real race up it," said Stetina.
With all the climbing, how will the GC shake out? "The Crested Butte time gaps will be there, but they won't be big. You've got the Vail TT. I think that is going to be the GC of the race. They don't have a massive mountain top finish so it is actually going to be a close race I think on the GC. It makes for more exciting racing. It is kind of a shame they don't have a massive, decisive climb, but it's all good," said Stetina.
Chris Horner agrees. "I would have liked to see a summit finish. I was kind of surprised to see that they put on a race in Colorado and didn't have a summit finish. All us climbers want that so we are going to be unhappy if we don't see it. It doesn't mean the race won't be good. It just means that we'd like to see a harder race."
"Eventually they are going to run into the same problems [as the Amgen Tour of California.] If you want an epic race and you want to compare it to the best races in Europe you are going to need summit finishes," concludes Horner.