- Laura Weislo
Van Garderen keen on defending his title
The USA Pro Challenge is only in its fourth year, but is already consistently attracting top talent to Colorado, and the 2014 edition is no exception. Defending champion Tejay van Garderen will be back with a powerhouse BMC squad, including the on-form Michael Schar, who won a hard-fought stage in Tour of Utah, and fellow Americans Peter Stetina, and Brent Bookwalter.
Garmin-Sharp will be looking to unseat their rivals, and after winning Tour of Utah for the second year in a row, Tom Danielson will be heading into the race with even more confidence than usual, but he admitted that Colorado is a very different race.
The stages in Colorado are much shorter than those in Utah, but they pack a heavy punch, with long, grinding climbs at high altitude: if Utah is akin to the Pyrenees, Colorado is the Alps, and those kinds of ascents suit both of the American GC leaders, but they also are good for Tinkoff-Saxo's Rafal Majka and Michael Rogers, both of whom are slated for the race.
Trek's Fränk Schleck and Cannondale's Ivan Basso will both be hoping to refresh their pedigrees by taking top results in this increasingly important race, and will be looking to the stage finishes such as the punchy climb to the top at Crested Butte (stage 2), the long grind up Monarch Mountain (stage 3) to gain an advantage over the riders like van Garderen, who are going to excel in the stage 6 uphill time trial in Vail.
The WorldTour teams will have to be on their guards, however, from the increasingly competitive Pro Continental and Continental teams. We saw in the Tour de France how powerful NetApp's Leopold Konig and Tiago Machado can be. The domestic teams have shown themselves to be equally scrappy on the non-Grand Tour front: riders like UnitedHealthcare's Lucas Euser, Hincapie's Joey Rosskopf, Gregory Brenes (Jamis-Hagens Berman), Carter Jones (Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies, and Serghei Tvetcov (Jelly Belly/Maxxis) have shown good form in recent weeks.
Team SmartStop, after holding the race lead for two days in Utah but being denied a stage victory, will be keen to get revenge. Jure Kocjan will be back, along with US champion Eric Marcotte, Travis McCabe and Rob Britton, all capable of getting into the winning move. That opportunity may come on the testing Colorado Springs circuit on stage 4.
The best chances for the domestic teams to get a stage win will be the opening day in Aspen, stage 4, and on the criterium-like finale from Boulder into Denver on stage 7.
With no Peter Sagan to dominate the sprints this year, we could see some new faces on the podium for those flatter stages, including Elia Viviani (Cannondale), Fred Rodriguez (Jelly Belly), emerging fast men like Rick Zabel (BMC), or domestic sprinters Ryan Anderson (Optum).