Garmin-Sharp's Tom Danielson, winner of last week's Tour of Utah and third at the USA Pro Challenge one year ago, said he believes the 2014 route in Colorado gives him the best chance yet for an overall win in his adopted home stage. But he also knows conquering the general classification will be a difficult climb.
"I think the route suits me better this year," he said during the pre-race press conference Sunday in downtown Aspen. "But I have to be realistic, because it suits (2013 overall winner Tejay van Garderen) really, really well. So yeah, I have a good shot because of it, but I have to respect that Tejay is the favorite. And even a course like Monarch suits him really well."
Organizers added the first summit finish in the race's four-year history this year during the stage 3 run from Gunnison to Monarch Mountain, which tops out at well over 3,000 meters. Danielson asked for a mountain-top finish during last year's final press conference in Denver, and organizers delivered.
"It's really cool that the organizers put in a massive mountain like Monarch in the 2014 route," Danielson said. "They used to have mountain bike races on top of it. It was pretty famous for being one of the highest altitude mountain bike races. It will be really special to have a road race finish on top of that."
Danielson said he's also looking forward to the stage 2 route from Aspen to Crested Butte. The stage traverses McClure Pass and then Kebler Pass before finishing with a final climb up Mt. Crested Butte. The Kebler Pass climb includes a long section of gravel on both the ascent and the ensuing descent.
"The stage that I won here in Aspen [in 2012] went over Cottonwood, which was dirt," Danielson said. "That was pretty phenomenal. It really makes climbing at 10,000 feet or whatever that much harder. You have to worry about traction, you have to worry about the line you take. It's not so much following the guy in front of you. You have to be in good position on the road."
Danielson said the gravel section will make the Crested Butte stage even more decisive then it's been in the past.
"As we've seen, usually the guy who wins in Crested Butte is on the podium in the final," he said. "So that's going to be a critical day for sure."
But Danielson said the entire race leaves little room for respite, as each stage has its own set of challenges to throw at the riders.
"It's so different everyday," he said. "The guy that wins this race will have to deal with everything. They'll have to be able to do crosswinds, short climbs, long climbs, time trialing, recovering well and that includes nutrition between the races. And then even with the circuit races, our positioning is really going to be critical. I can't put my finger on one stage in particular that will win you the race, but in any one of those seven you could definitely lose the race."
Van Garderen, the BMC rider who won last year and finished fifth overall at the Tour de France in July, agreed with Danielson about the 2014 Colorado route.
"From the years that we've ridden Colorado, what we've learned is that any day can be decisive," van Garderen said. "Last year we came here with the Tour de France champion [Team Sky's Chris Froome], and he [Garmin-Sharp's Andrew] Talansky and [Sky's Richie] Porte were all out of it on day one, losing 10 minutes. That was a big surprise, and that could very well happen again with guys who aren't acclimated to this altitude."
The fireworks are likely to begin immediately on Monday's opening stage, when riders tackle the same Aspen circuit race that Cannondale's Peter Sagan won in a sprint finish last year. Sagan is not at the 2014 race, so the stage is wide open.
"I think the joker stage is this one here in Aspen," Danielson said. "We all can attest that just trying to pre-ride it, you see some ridiculously high heart rates and sore legs afterward. So all hands on deck tomorrow. I think the fans will get a phenomenal show, for sure."