While defending USA Pro Challenge champion Levi Leipheimer returns to Colorado in Omega Pharma-Quickstep kit, RadioShack-Nissan has fielded a squad in this year's edition which may yet again deliver the overall victor in Denver next Sunday. Figuring prominently on the roster are a pair of Americans who are each making their USA Pro Challenge debut and could be the wearer of the race's final yellow jersey: Chris Horner and Matthew Busche.
Horner was slated to compete in last year's inaugural edition, but a blood clot in his lung stemming from his crash at the Tour de France kept the him out of the peloton for the remainder of the 2011 season and into the early part of this year's calendar. Horner was very pleased to be on the start line in Durango on Monday for the race's first stage.
"I was motivated watching it on the couch last year with the blood clot to come and do it with some good form this year," Horner told Cyclingnews.
Most recently, Horner finished the Tour of Utah in seventh overall, 1:19 behind winner Johann Tschopp (BMC Racing Team), and prior to that the 40-year-old American finished 13th at the Tour de France followed by competing in the Olympic Games road race.
"The Tour de France is the training that I have coming in here that will shape whether or not I have good form or no form. I haven't had much recovery. I came from the Tour de France and I kept training because I had the Olympics and then I had Utah a week after that, so I kept training from there. Then I went back to Bend and still kept training from there.
"I think the problems I was having at Utah was altitude and heat. Here we don't have the heat and with the three weeks that I've spent at altitude I would have adapted hopefully a little bit to the Colorado altitude, but you don't really know until you get out there. I've done everything I can to arrive here with the best form."
If Horner finds himself not at his best in Colorado, RadioShack-Nissan has plenty of additional GC stalwarts to vie for yellow.
"We have deep options, but they're all the same story. Klodi (Andreas Klöden) finished 11th in the Tour de France and certainly can time trial with everybody here so he's got to be protected and we've got to keep him fresh. He took a week off after the Tour and then started back training again and he's been here for seven or eight days already so he's coming into Colorado super-motivated. Jakob Fuglsang, who missed the Tour de France and kept training hard, did the Olympics but then he's taken a break after the Olympics so we don't know how much of an effect that will have on his form. And of course you have Matthew Busche who just came from Utah where he finished second overall so the young kid is flying the flag strong for us."
Horner feels that the rest of the ProTour teams in the USA Pro Challenge peloton find themselves in a similar situation.
"Every team that's a favourite here, their story sounds just like ours," said Horner. "You've got one or two guys who missed the Tour that could be fresh, but are they adapted to the altitude? And then you've got the Tour de France guys - are they too tired from the Tour and are they adapted to the altitude? Nobody is really an outright favourite, but if I had to pick anyone...maybe Janez [Brajkovic]."
Home turf vs. Grand Tour conundrum
At this time last year, Matthew Busche was making his Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta a España while then teammate Levi Leipheimer was delivering the squad overall victory in Colorado. This year, the 27-year-old American finds himself at the USA Pro Challenge, and after finishing second overall to Johann Tschopp (BMC) the previous weekend in Utah, he's definitely amongst the favourites for victory in Colorado.
"The last year this year came out in its first edition and I think it was received really well in the state and by the cycling community so it's definitely a race I want to do and like to do," Busche told Cyclingnews. "Obviously there's always the tug and pull between a Grand Tour [and USA Pro Challenge]. The Vuelta for me would have been the second Grand Tour which would be a step toward doing the ultimate goal which is the Tour de France.
"Being here in Colorado, racing in the States with great fans and where our family and friends can watch more and racing to hopefully promote our team and promote our American sponsors, it's definitely a fun race to be at. I'm happy to be here in Durango. I've been here about five years ago when I was really starting to get serious about cycling so it's good to be back and ride a few roads that I kind of remember."
While Busche's podium finish in Utah indicates he's on a good vein of form, he admitted that the result provided quite a challenge.
"I went really deep, maybe the deepest I've ever gone. I definitely pushed the envelope on Snowbird and Empire Pass," said Busche. "I discovered some things about myself and how far I can go. Besides going really deep then you have the factor of recovery at altitude. This last week I definitely was feeling it, but I think I'm bouncing back all right and hopefully we can replicate the situation in Utah here in Colorado."
Busche, like Horner, believes their team has a wealth of talent to draw from but admits the race's altitude provides an interesting dynamic.
"Our team is really strong. I think we have a lot of cards to play," said Busche. "Definitely I wouldn't call myself THE leader, I may be A leader. You can always run the risk of having too many leaders and not enough workers, but I think this race will show pretty quickly who might be feeling good and who might be suffering more. But that said, a race like this you can turn around from one day to the next and completely be really good and really bad or really bad and really good. I think at altitude that might be exaggerated or accentuated more. I think we're all just going to race as hard as we can and hopefully at the end of the week we'll have the yellow jersey."