The women's Exergy Tour in Boise, Idaho, a UCI 2.1 race that boasts an international field of 2012 Olympic hopefuls, gets underway tonight with the 3.2km prologue time trial through the streets of downtown.
Four more stages – three road races and an individual time trial – follow before the race crowns its first-ever champion on Memorial Day. The race offers a $100,000 purse and important UCI points, which determine how may riders each country can send to the Olympics.
"The opportunity for these women here to score UCI points for their country is profound," said USA Cycling CEO Steve Johnson. "And most countries actually use performances by their top athletes at events like this to ultimately select the Olympic teams. So the individuals who are competing here will be competing both for their country's overall international rankings and for themselves, in terms of selection to the final Olympic team for their home country."
Although the looming Olympics are certainly on everyone's mind, most of the riders agreed that the race within a race wouldn't have too much affect on tactics or the ultimate results.
"The Americans ranked in the top five in UCI points are well spread over the top teams that are represented here," said Exergy-TWENTY12 team leader Kristin Armstrong, the 2008 Olympic time trial champion. "So I think that makes it a great opportunity for each of us to still play our role within our trade teams. Of course, at the end of the day, we want to get as many UCI points as possible, but I think with all five us here, if we race as hard as we can and as smart as possible and stick to our own team strategy within our trade teams, we're going to come out on top."
TIBCO-To the Top team leader Megan Guarnier backed up Armstrong's thoughts, adding that the competitive nature of the riders and their trade teams would shine through during the week of racing.
"I think this is all going to be really aggressive racing," Guarnier said. "The courses are challenging enough that it will be aggressive from day one, and the GC battle will be on every day. The Sunday stage is a huge stage, it looks like, but I think every day is going to be a very aggressive race."
Armstrong, a Boise resident and the 2008 Olympic time trial gold medalist, will doubtlessly looking to build on the dominant performances she laid out recently at the Tour of the Gila and the Tour of California women's time trial, where she bested all but one rider by more than two minutes. Armstrong said racing at home gives her a definite advantage, in part because she gets to sleep every night in her own bed.
"I know the terrain, and I think with the conditions and knowing the wind, it is a leg up," she said. "But also having the community support behind me is really the biggest leg. Just imagining going up the prologue course and knowing that thousands of fans are going to there cheering me on, I'm going to use that every way I can."
The 2008 Olympic time trial champion will need every boost she can manage against a stacked field that includes fellow Olympic champion Nicole Cooke, the British rider who won the Olympic road race in 2008. Cooke said her five-rider Faren Honda team was looking forward to a high level of competition at the American race.
"When the calendar came out we saw that there was a new race here, and the level that we were going to race would be one of the premiere races on the whole calendar," Cooke said. "So this is a great opportunity to ride against the best riders in the world and continue our preparation for the season. It's a great platform for the European teams to come to America and race."
Another rider competing for the first time in the US is Mei-Yu Hsiao, the Axman Team Taiwan rider who has twice won the Asian Cycling Championship road race. Through her interpreter, Hsiao commented on the nice people and "big homes" in Idaho, as well as the riders she would be lining up alongside.
"I'm very excited and quite nervous to be racing with all these Olympic champions," she said. "It's quite a step up to compete at this level, but I am ready for it and I want to compete with you ladies. At home the level is a bit different, but we are catching up, so watch out you guys."
Another rider to watch out for will be current world road race champion Giorgia Bronzini (Diadora-Pasta Zara). The tiny Italian also brought a five-rider team but appeared confident the squad had the firepower to compete with eight-rider teams.
"I'm here with a small team, but we are strong," Bronzini said at the official team presentation Wednesday evening. "We're here to give the maximum effort everyday, and I believe in the team."
Riding with the benefit of an eight-rider squad, Optum Pro Cycling-Kelly Benefit Strategies rider Janel Holcomb said her team had brought a well-rounded group that would compete for wins every day.
"We have a good all-around team that will be active in all parts of the race," said the 2011 National Race Calendar overall winner. "We've got riders for climbing, sprinting and the time trials."
Specialized-lululemon also brought a well-rounded, eight-rider team to the race, including three current national champions as well as multiple former Olympic gold medallists and world champions. Current US time trial champion Evelyn Stevens will be just one card team director Ronny Lauke will have in hand when the battle for stage wins and the overall classification starts. He'll also have multi-time Olympic champion Clara Hughes at his disposal, as well as former world time trial champion Amber Neben and current German road race champion Ina Yoko-Teutenberg.
Mountains, mountains and maybe a bit of weather
This evening's prologue time trial will set the pecking order with a sprint through the heart of Boise. The route features just 25 meters of elevation gain as it runs 3.2km between the Idaho Capitol Building on one end and an historic train depot on the other.
The road stages begin with Friday's stage 1 jaunt just outside of Boise in Nampa. The 123.5km route offers up just 550 meters of climbing, but the two ascents of short and steep Pump Road at 51km and again at 84.5km should open up the legs of the power riders and climbers alike.
The race continues Saturday, May 26, with the stage 2 individual time trial in Kuna. The pancake-flat 16.7km race of truth is quite literally a straightforward affair, with the only turns coming near the start/finish and at the turn around at just over 8km. Organizers said the course was designed to mimic the route of the time trial course at the 2012 Olympics in London. Although there are only 78 meters of climbing over the entire route, the exposed nature of the course means winds will likely play a huge factor.
Sunday's Queen stage from Crouch to Idaho City will no doubt be a major player in deciding the tour's overall winner. At just over 96km, the stage 3 route offers up 1,377 meters of climbing as riders head from the Garden Valley and up through the Boise National Forest to the finish in Idaho City. The day's major climbs come about 50km and 70km into the race, where riders will reach nearly 1,700 meters of altitude. Reports from a reconnaissance ride earlier in the week said the upper reaches of the course experienced intermittent rain, sleet and light snow.
The riders who survive the slog over the mountains to Idaho City on Sunday will then have to deal with the 74km final stage that starts and finishes in Boise's Hyde Park. The relatively short route is no cakewalk, throwing 1,125 meters of climbing at riders over the constantly undulating circuit on the outskirts of town. The constant up-and-down nature of the course will make it difficult for any one team to control the pace or protect its leaders.