The USA Pro Cycling Challenge assembles the highest quality field ever to race on American soil when it kicks off in Colorado Springs on August 22. Who are the top contenders? It's difficult to assess which riders will be able to perform in the rarified air of the Rocky Mountains, but Cyclingnews brings you its top ten picks for the brand new event.
Leipheimer's winning performance in the Tour of Utah signaled that he has come on good form following a disappointing Tour de France, and the Santa Rosa resident is a perennial contender in any US stage race. We will likely see the American put in a smashing prologue, but can he withstand the assault of two Colombian teams with the young squad that RadioShack has assembled?
His team struggled to control the race in Utah and Leipheimer will miss the presence of Janez Brajkovic on the climbs, but the team has called in some reinforcements in the form of Dmitriy Muravyev and Ivan Rovny. However, there is only so much a team can do when it comes to a course like the one in Colorado. When it came down to climber vs. climber in Utah, Leipheimer was up to the task, and there's no reason to suggest he can't do the same in Colorado.
2: Sergio Henao (Gobernacion de Antioquia)
This Colombian rising star made a big splash at the Tour of Utah as the only rider to challenge overall winner Levi Leipheimer in the high mountain ascents. His talents have already been recognized by Team Sky, which recently signed him for two years. Henao is especially well-acclimated to the high altitudes, and has an advantage over many of the big names in terms of freshness, having not endured a Grand Tour.
His climbing is first-rate, and he's shown he can put in a good time trial, especially when the course heads straight uphill. In this sense the stage 3 time trial should suit Henao's strengths well as it climbs from 2500m to 2900m. These qualities and a demonstrably strong team push Henao near the top of our contenders list.
It was clear that Tom Danielson was at Tour of Utah solely to train for the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, and the top American finisher of the Tour de France looked comfortable on the climbs. Colorado is Danielson's stomping grounds, and his familiarity with the roads will give him an advantage over most of the contenders.
Danielson's advantage will be a well-fortified Garmin-Cervélo squad, which has been staying at high altitudes in preparation for the race and is highly motivated to perform on home roads. If Danielson puts in the type of consistent performance he showed at the Tour de France there is no reason he won't be on the final podium in Denver.
The Tour de France champion can never be counted out, especially in a race which will depend so much on time trialing. However, it is unclear as to whether Cadel Evans will be bringing good form to Colorado. He's taken the time to arrive early and get acclimated to the high altitude, and his team has already prepared in Utah.
After the biggest win of his career, will Evans still have enough motivation to contend? The Australian is never one to pass up a challenge, and it is important for BMC to perform on home soil. We expect Evans to honor the race by putting in a respectable performance, but after a tough Tour de France he may lack the spark needed to win.
Van Garderen put in a string of solid performances in the Tour of Utah and, despite some issues on the final stage when he cracked on the first climb, this tenacious young competitor looks to be on good form for the American races.
Van Garderen lives in Colorado and knows the roads well, and will be highly motivated to perform in front of his friends and family. The climbs in Colorado are better suited to his riding style, and because of his strong time trialing abilities, we expect to see this 23-year-old high up in the overall classification.
One never knows which of the Schleck brothers will be team leader, but Andy Schleck arrived earlier in Colorado than his older brother, so one can assume the Tour de France runner-up will be the team's go-to man. The climbs don't necessarily suit Andy Schleck, as there is a lack of the steep slopes which he can use as a launching point for attack.
The race will likely be decided in the prologue and stage 3 time trial, and the race against the clock doesn't favour Schleck. While he may hold his own in the uphill test on stage 3, the seconds he stands to lose in the prologue will be hard to make up on the types of climbs that feature in this race.
7: Juan Pablo Suarez or Giovanny Manuel Báez (EPM-UNE)
We're including Suarez and Báez because we don't want to get caught out like we did by the Gobernacion de Antioquia team in Utah. Suarez recently won the Tour do Rio, while Báez is a past Vuelta Colombia champion which can only mean he's as good on the climbs as Henao. The Colombians are experts at racing at high altitudes, and every time the road tilts uphill they attack like crazy. We expect the EPM-UNE riders to be no exception to that rule.
In keeping with the theme, we're picking the best time trialists who can climb, and Sutherland has to feature among the top names in this department. He didn't exactly shine at the Tour of Utah, but it was clear his focus was on Colorado all along.
Now living in Boulder, the altitude will come as no shock to the Australian, and as is the case with Van Garderen, the climbs aren't as steep as those in Utah, so he should fare well. He's another local who will be looking to impress the home crowds, so we should see Sutherland in the mix.
Gesink has had a lackluster season and will be seeking some results in Colorado, even if his team won't arrive in time enough to get acclimated to the high altitude. This will be especially difficult coming from a country as close to sea level as possible, but the Dutch rider can never be counted out of the mix in the mountains.
Why not Ivan Basso? The Italian, like the Rabobank riders, won't arrive in Colorado until four days before the race starts, so we can only assume he isn't taking the race seriously. Duggan, in contrast, put in stellar performances on the climbs at Tour of Utah, and, hungry for a 2012 contract, he will be looking to repeat in Colorado.
Other contenders of note: Pat McCarty and Lucas Euser (Spidertech), Peter Stetina (Garmin-Cervélo), Daniel Navarro (Saxo Bank Sungard), Oscar Sevilla (Gobernacion de Antioquia) and Jeff Louder (BMC).