While five of the top-10 finishers of the 2011 Tour de France are poised to start the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge on Monday, including the top three of Cadel Evans (BMC), Andy Schleck (Leopard Trek) and Fränk Schleck (Leopard Trek), the highly touted ProTour riders pointed to the Colombians of UCI Continental squads Gobernacion de Antioquia and EPM-UNE at Sunday's pre-race press conference as the riders expected to excel.
Tom Danielson (Garmin-Cervelo), who finished ninth in the Tour, is the only top-10 Tour finisher to already face the Colombian onslaught in the recently concluded Tour of Utah. Gobernacion de Antioquia won three stages, two by Sergio Henao, who also finished second overall to Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack). Danielson finished fifth overall in Utah, 3:49 down on Leipheimer and 3:26 down on Henao.
Sergio Henao, who's bound for Team Sky in 2012, lives at 2,000m elevation in Colombia, an elevation rarely tackled in the high mountains of European races, and feels at home in the rarified air.
EPM-UNE did not compete in the Tour of Utah, but the Colombian squad is expected to excel as well in Colorado with multiple climbs exceeding 12,000 feet in elevation.
"I don't know [Gobernacion de Antioquia], I knew Sevilla before the race but I didn't know the other guys and they were super, super-strong," said Danielson. "First off, I expect chaos from them. If they're in the leader's jersey they probably won't ride, they'll just attack anyway, and if they're not in the leader's jersey they're going to attack.
"Fortunately in this race there's a lot of really strong teams that will ride. Unfortunately for Levi last week it was really up to his team so basically it was those guys versus his team and that's what really made the race so difficult for Levi to win.
"In order to beat those guys we're going to have to be attentive on all fronts and be ready. In the initial creation of this race with Cottonwood Pass and these other early climbs I think a lot of people saw a big group going over the top but now with these guys it's not going to be a big group."
The 2011 Tour de France champion Cadel Evans does not consider the USA Pro Cycling Challenge as a rematch between himself and the Schleck brothers, but pointed to the Colombians as well as prohibitive favourites. "I look at them (the Colombians) as the favourites because of the advantages they have at altitude acclimatization. Coming out of the Tour, with travel and so on, doesn't exactly help us bring our best here but we're doing everything we can to race as best we can. Those guys come from a much more favourable environment.
"I don't see this race as a rematch between Cadel and me, that's going to be next year at the Tour de France," said Andy Schleck, second in the three previous editions of the Tour de France. "Of course I hope to beat him but that's not why I'm here. Don't forget there are 127 other riders who are here to win this race, and there's no bad riders here."