Without exact route details, it's hard to make definitive predictions on how things will shake out at the 2012 USA Pro Cycling Challenge. But the three pro riders on hand at the event's host city celebration reception at the Tavern Downtown in Denver Tuesday night all agreed that no matter what organizers concoct for stages 1-6 of the week-long Colorado stage race, the final outcome wont be decided until conclusion of stage 7's time trial on August 27.
The question is, how many riders will remain in the overall winner conversation coming into that final day in Denver?
That answer will almost certainly be determined by stage 6's finish line location in Boulder, and the hope among Chris Baldwin (Bissell), Lucas Euser (SpiderTech), Matt Cooke (Team Exergy) - and just about everyone else in the room - is that organizers will opt for the top of Flagstaff Mountain.
Known locally as Super Flag, the climb is a staple among area cyclists due to its proximity and difficulty. Situated just blocks from downtown, Flagstaff is a 5.1-mile grunt that rises about 2200 feet over an average gradient of 11 percent, including a two-city-block long stretch known as "The Wall" that ramps upwards of 15 percent. Peak elevation is 7700 feet.
According to the popular Colorado-centric cycling website 303cycling.com, Garmin climbing ace (and Boulder resident) Tom Danielson holds the course record at 22 minutes, 10 seconds.
"No matter what, having a stage finish in Boulder is a dream come true," said Baldwin, himself a Boulder resident. "But if I had my way, we'd definitely be heading straight up Flagstaff. It's something we know, something we spend a lot of time on. It would be an awesome way to finish the stage."
Baldwin is not alone in his thinking. During the heyday of the Coors Classic, Flagstaff made frequent appearances in Colorado's first pro level stage race. And today, Boulder local organizing committee co-chair Andrew Shoemaker says his group is pushing hard for a return to the iconic ascent.
"We've proposed to the race organization that we finish on top of Flagstaff," said Shoemaker. "What a spectacular way to end the race. Now we just need to figure out how to get everyone down safely so that we could have the celebration, the party, the awards back in town. But for the stage, that is what this race should be about, showing people what it's like to visit Boulder, Colorado. Just imagine the helicopter footage of the racers coming through town and then heading up that climb. I can't think of a better postcard to show off what it's like to be in Boulder."
USAPCC CEO Shawn Hunter is on board as well, as long as his team can find a way to pull it off safely.
"We are going to do our very best to make that happen," said Hunter at the reception on Tuesday. "There is a lot of work that needs to be done in the next 45-60 days. But I think if you asked 10 people in Boulder where the stage should finish, nine of them would say Flagstaff. We want to create a mountaintop finish, but we also need to be in a position where we can quickly get athletes back down so the celebration can take place in downtown. It would be very similar to the way we had to handle the time trial in Vail, and we think that went well so Flagstaff is definitely possible."
Then RadioShack rider Levi Leipheimer won the USAPCC's inaugural running by 11 seconds over Garmin-Cervelo's Christian Vande Velde, with Tejay Van Garderen third, at 0:17. But that race lacked a true mountaintop finish, and the accompanying drama. Instead the final outcome was decided almost wholly by stage 3's uphill TT on Vail Pass, which was also won by Leipheimer.
"No matter what, the time trial will be a huge factor again," said Euser. "But if there are one or two summit finishes this year, then some guys probably get eliminated before then. No matter what, I'd expect it to be super close, though. The gaps at the end will be seconds, not minutes."
"Those top guys are all so good, you have to put a really challenging climb in to really blow it up get it to explode on a climb," added Baldwin. "I'd expect the same guys as last year to be at the front in 2012."
"Boulder could be the deciding day," said Cooke. "It just depends on where the finish is."
Organizers guessed the final decision on the 2012 route would be made official sometime in March.