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The 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge final podium (L-R): Tejay van Garderen, 3rd; Levi Leipheimer, 1st; Christian Vande Velde, 2nd
World-class racing returns to Colorado for the second edition of the USA Pro Challenge, taking place August 20-26, and once again the peloton is replete with stars from the 2012 Tour de France plus a strong contingent of squads from both international and domestic Pro Continental and Continental ranks.
Last year's inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge featured the final podium from the Tour de France as its headliners, champion Cadel Evans plus the Schleck brothers, Andy and Fränk. For 2012, six of the top 13 Tour finishers, including third place overall Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) and fifth place overall and best young rider Tejay van Garderen (BMC), will compete in the seven-day stage race in Colorado, upgraded in UCI ranking from 2.1 to 2.HC this year. Additionally, the top six finishers and eight of the top 10 from last year's race return to contest an even more difficult parcours this year in the high mountains of Colorado.
Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) won the 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge in a season which he flourished in stage racing, also victorious at the Tour de Suisse, the Tour of Utah, plus second overall and a stage winner at the Amgen Tour of California. Leipheimer won two stages en route to overall victory in Colorado last year, the first road stage finishing in Crested Butte plus the Vail time trial, but his fortunes in 2012 haven't been as prevalent, rooted in a serious crash in early April where he was hit by a car while training in Spain. Nonetheless, he comes into the race fresh off of a solo victory in the final stage of the Tour of Utah last weekend, where he placed sixth overall. Prior to that, Leipheimer had a lackluster Tour de France, where he finished 32nd overall, but he has a Grand Tour in his legs and is motivated for a repeat victory.
"I'm looking forward to racing the USA Pro Challenge again and I hope to defend my title from last year," said Leipheimer. "Colorado is a beautiful place with literally breathtaking courses. Last year the support from the fans was incredible and rivaled the Grand Tours in Europe. I can't wait to experience it again."
Garmin-Sharp will once again be racing on their home turf in Colorado and after placing second and fourth overall last year with Christian Vande Velde and Tom Danielson, respectively, the US ProTeam wants nothing less than an overall victory this go round. Vande Velde and Danielson will be well-supported by Colorado natives Peter Stetina and Alex Howes, while reigning US pro time trial champion David Zabriskie is a definite threat to win the final stage time trial in Denver. On any stage finishing with a bunch sprint, Tyler Farrar will certainly be in the mix and a victory on home soil would certainly deliver a welcome boost to morale.
Tejay van Garderen held the leader's jersey after the stage into Aspen last year, but surrendered it the following day in the Vail time trial to Leipheimer. One year later, Van Garderen is a strong contender to go two steps higher on the podium for his first stage race victory in the professional ranks.
"If I can get it at this race, it would be incredible," said Van Garderen. "The course suits me well, but some of the best riders in the world are coming. So it's not going to be easy. But we have a strong team that is built for a couple of us to do well."
Van Garderen has added motivation to do well on the stage on the penultimate stage which finishes in Boulder. "I just bought a house with my wife, Jessica, right on Broadway so the race will go directly past it. You definitely want to do your best in front of friends and family who don't often have a chance to see me race. So this is a great opportunity for them."
Van Garderen will be joined by a very strong BMC squad featuring 2011 Tour champion Cadel Evans, recent Tour of Utah winner Johann Tschopp, Colorado native and Giro d'Italia maglia rosa wearer Taylor Phinney, plus George Hincapie, who won the queen stage into Aspen in Colorado last year and finished fifth overall. For Hincapie, the USA Pro Challenge will be the final race in his 19-year career.
"I felt like Colorado has become quite a big and important race on the calendar, so the opportunity was there to have this be my last race," said Hincapie. "It's certainly meaningful to end my career in the US."
At last year's USA Pro Cycling Challenge, Liquigas-Cannondale ruled the roost when it came to bunch finishes. The Italian ProTeam won the final three stages last year, two by Elia Viviani and the final stage in Denver by Daniel Oss. While the squad featured Ivan Basso as a GC contender, the Italian finished a quiet 35th overall. This year, however, Liquigas-Cannondale will be led by Vincenzo Nibali, the third place finisher at the 2012 Tour de France and a strong contender for overall victory in Colorado. As in the Tour, Nibali will have Ivan Basso at his side as super-domestique and can count on the squad's two Americans, reigning US champion Timmy Duggan and Ted King, to provide plenty of support out on the road. The team also has a pair of fast finishers in Damiano Caruso and Moreno Moser, the 2012 Tour of Poland champion, to look for in the event of bunch sprint finales.
Chris Horner was forced to miss last year's inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge due to health issues stemming from his crash in the Tour de France, but this year the seasoned 40-year-old should figure prominently in the general classification picture. Horner finished 13th overall at the 2012 Tour de France and followed that result with a seventh place overall at the Tour of Utah. RadioShack-Nissan brings a very deep team to Colorado featuring the likes of Andreas Klöden, 11th at this year's Tour, Jakob Fuglsang and 2011 Tour of Lombardy champion Oliver Zaugg. The irrepressible Jens Voigt returns to Colorado on the squad as well as Americans Ben King and Matthew Busche, who recently finished second overall at the Tour of Utah.
Astana rounds out the ProTeams in Colorado and will be captained by Janez Brajkovic, who earned his best ever result at a Grand Tour with a ninth place overall finish in the Tour de France this year. The slender, 28-year-old Slovenian is at home both in the mountains and against the clock and can be expected to vie for an overall podium finish at the USA Pro Challenge.
Pro Continental and Continental contenders
In addition to the six ProTeams starting in Colorado, the peloton also includes five Pro Continental teams as well as five Continental squads. UnitedHealthcare's Rory Sutherland and Jake Keough each won stages in the Tour of Utah and can be expected to be in the mix in Colorado. Sutherland finished 10th overall at last year's USA Pro Cycling Challenge and should once again be a contender for a top general classification result.
For Team Type 1-Sanofi, Kiel Reijnen has shown his stripes at altitude with a ninth place overall result earlier this year at the Tour of Qinghai Lake. Reijnen also earned bronze at this year's US pro road championships. Italians Alessandro Bazzana and Daniele Colli have taken sprint victories in Europe this year, while Russian Alexander Efimkin, the 2011 Tour of Turkey champion, is a strong all-around rider.
Spidertech p/b C10's Lucas Euser finished eighth overall at the Tour of Utah while Champion System's Craig Lewis also showed good form in Utah and is a contender for a stage victory in Colorado. Lewis's teammate Cameron Wurf has had a strong season, highlighted by a second place overall result at the Tour of Qinghai Lake.
The five Continental teams can be counted on animating the racing and being in the mix for stage victories. Exergy's captain and fast finisher Fred Rodriguez finished third in the sprint finale to last year's closing stage in Denver and should be expected to figure prominently in stages with bunch finishes, as may be the case in stage 5 from Breckenridge to Colorado Springs.
Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies' Jesse Anthony was a prominent protagonist at the 2012 Tour of Utah and Colorado teammates such as Michael Creed and Andrew Bajadali are eagerly awaiting the chance to compete on home roads. Canadian Sebastian Salas won the KOM jersey at the Amgen Tour of California and Alex Candelario should be in the mix for sprint finishes at the end of tough stages.
Bontrager Livestrong features several young, talented climbers such as Joe Dombrowski, who won this year's Baby Giro stage race in Italy and climbed to a fourth place finish on the Mt Baldy stage at the Amgen Tour of California. Dombrowski and teammate Ian Boswell recently finished fourth and fifth overall at the Tour of Utah and can be expected to once again showcase their climbing talent in Colorado.
Bissell's Chris Baldwin was the highest finisher last year in Colorado among the domestic Continental squads, 15th on GC, and returns to improve on his result. Teammate Ben Jacques-Maynes won a hotly contested mountains classification jersey in Utah and is a rider not afraid to go on the attack. Also, Boulder native Julian Kyer, a mid-season addition to Bissell, eagerly awaits racing on familiar Colorado roads.
The peloton is rounded out by Colombia's EPM-Une squad, led by last year's sixth place overall finisher Rafael Infantino Abreu. Infantino was the first rider to crest Independence Pass and also finished third behind Leipheimer and Vande Velde in the Vail time trial stage. At home in the high mountains, EPM-Une team members also finished second, third and fourth in a fiercely contested mountains classification contest at last year's race.