There was a gaping hole in the US calendar last year after the demise of the USA Pro Challenge, but UCI racing heads back to the mountains of Colorado for a grand experiment that race organisers hope can be a new model for the sport in this country.
Paired with a music and food festival, amateur, fixed gear, BMX, adult trike races, recreational rides and a massive flea market in Denver's RiNo Arts District, the 'Velorama Colorado' is designed to be more than just a bike race - it's aim is the heretofore unimaginable idea of making a cycling event profitable. The USA Pro Challenge had attracted some of the most passionate and massive crowds in recent cycling history in North America, but the race still was millions of dollars in the red. With big-name musical acts such as Death Cab for Cutie and Wilco, the Velorama is ambitious in its aim to reverse the trend.
The Colorado Classic, August 10-13, has also managed to bring in some top cyclists, with four WorldTour teams on the line: BMC, Cannondale-Drapac, Trek-Segafredo and UAE Team Emirates, plus five Pro Continental teams and seven Continental squads - a strong field for a first-year event. By limiting teams to six riders, the organisers have guaranteed that the small peloton and short, punchy courses will make for wide-open, aggressive, unpredictable and exciting racing.
Scoring Tour de France runner-up Rigoberto Uran for the start line was a big coup for the race, and the Colombian could find the Moonstone climb on stage 2 to his liking, as will Colorado native Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo). Tour of Utah winner Rob Britton (Rally Cycling) is another rider to watch when the roads start going up. On the fast days, Taylor Phinney will no doubt be looking to add his first win for Cannondale-Drapac in his home race.
The opening men's stage on Thursday in Colorado Springs revives the 2014 USA Pro Challenge circuit (won by sprinter Elia Viviani) that leaves downtown and heads to the Garden of the Gods with its iconic red rock formations. The pro men will tackle the 25.1km circuit with its dual-peaked climb six times over 150.4km, the women face only two circuits.
The climb is only 150m of elevation gain, rising from 1850m, and will favour the lighter-weight sprinters and those who have come into the race already acclimated to the altitude, perhaps by racing Tour of Utah.
Kiel Reijnen (Trek-Segafredo) excels in races like this, and expect his Colorado rival Alex Howes (Cannondale-Drapac) to be in the mix, too. Mihkel Raim (Israel Cycling Academy) will be keen to nab a victory after missing out in Utah, but the overwhelming favourite for the first jersey will be Travis McCabe (UnitedHealthcare).
The second stage brings riders to the rarified air of Breckenridge for another circuit race at 3,000m. The riders will face a painful 10.3km circuit 10 times for a massive 2,230m of climbing over just 103km. It's practically guaranteed to not be a field sprint, with the Moonstone Road climb each lap and a fast, technical downhill to the line. The women race five laps for an equally spirited stage.
The race then joins up with the Velorama festival in Denver on Saturday with a stage that looks a bit more traditional - there is but one major climb up Gap Road and a second smaller one up Golden Gate Canyon Road outside of Golden, Colorado, but the long descent back to Denver should be enough to bring most of the sprinters back into the mix.
The final stage in Denver is contested on a much flatter 12km loop similar to what we saw in the USA Pro Challenge, with City Park providing the main elevation gain. It should be another day for the sprinters.
The biggest disappointment is the women's event - it is but two stages, taking place in the morning three hours before the men's race, with no television coverage and no UCI ranking, both stages outside the main Velorama festival. The Pro-Am Criteriums on Friday and Saturday nights in Denver will at least put the women centre stage in town and offer a $5,000 prize purse. UnitedHealthcare, Rally and Sho-Air/Twenty20 are among the top teams attending.