This week's USA Pro Challenge in Colorado won't likely offer a lot of opportunities for the sprinters. The 1,908.7 km route with 12,800 meters of climbing over seven stages, some of which top 3,000 meters of elevation multiple times, will be a race for the climbers and the GC contenders.
RadioShack-Nissan's Jens Voigt said his team didn't bring any sprinters to the race for these very reasons. On paper, the one day that looks like an opportunity for the fast men will come on the 189.7 km stage from Breckenridge to Colorado Springs. The stage starts with the category 1 climb of Hoosier Pass, which tops out at 3,352 meters just 16 km into the race, and then generally rolls downhill to the finish.
But Jake Keough, the 25-year-old UnitedHealthcare sprinter who won the only pure sprinters' stage at the very hilly Tour of Utah, said his opportunities for results will depend on how the stages are raced.
"I think probably stage 5 is the only one that looks really sprint friendly," Keough told Cyclingnews. "It starts with a hard climb and then it's a little bit downhill all day. But depending on how they race, there are a lot of stages that could possibly end with pretty large groups."
Keough suffered through three difficult climbing stages in Utah before he seized his opportunity on the relatively flat stage 4 that finished in Salt Lake City, convincingly grabbing the win in front of Liquigas-Cannondale's Marco Benfatto and Garmin-Sharp's Tyler Farrar. Keough said his team will be looking for the same type of opportunities this week in Colorado.
"Utah last week was a good confirmation of how you can suffer over the climbs and then get your opportunity later in the race," he said. "We'll try and take that momentum and stay focused – basically conserve energy on the hard days and then hopefully be good on the flat days."
But Keough and UnitedHealthcare will have another tall order on their hands if they want to win a field sprint at the USA Pro Challenge. Farrar is back with his Garmin-Sharp squad. BMC has Taylor Phinney, who can pull off a fast finish if he gets the green light from his director. Team Type 1 has Alessandro Bazzana, Team Exergy has Freddie Rodriguez and Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies has Alex Candelario. Several teams have multiple options for the fast finish: Bissell Pro Cycling brought Frank Pipp and Paddy Bevin while Bontrager-Livestrong has proved itself able to put any number of riders in the top 10 of sprint finales. Aside from Keough, UnitedHealthcare also has Robert Forster and Karl Menzies for the sprints.
"The field here is really strong," Keough said. "There are good climbers, there are good all-around riders and there's some good sprinters, but we try to focus on what our team does and focus in on our lead out and try to perfect that for this week, so that's kind of our strategy."
But before the teams can try and perfect their lead-out trains for the fast finish, they'll have to get their sprinters over the massive climbs that dot every stage in the race. Keough said the autobus group will likely play a large role in making that happen, and he volunteered to take the lead.
"It should be me," he said. "I'm usually the first one dropped and raise my hand, so hopefully we'll have a good group and try to conserve energy and focus on the sprint days."
Keough said he'll also have his normal domestique duties to carry out before he gets his own chance for glory. "Last week was a good example," he said. "Rory [Sutherland] was in the yellow, and we had to get bottles and kind of do the schlepping work. But that's fine. On the flat days they help me and on the climbing days I'll try and help them."