Quiznos Pro Challenge not one for the sprinters

After months of waiting and speculation, organizers of the Quiznos Pro Challenge revealed the 11 host cities for their new-for-2011 pro stage race at a well-attended press conference inside the golden-domed state capitol building in downtown Denver on Thursday.

Twenty-three cities applied but fewer than half got the nod to play host for what will be a 7-day, 560-mile race, August 22-28, 2011. The winners list read like a who's who of iconic Rocky Mountain locales: Aspen, Vail, Breckenridge, Steamboat Springs, Denver, Crested Butte, Gunnison, Golden, Salida, Avon and Colorado Springs.

Noticeably absent from that list was Boulder, birthplace to the Quiznos race's predecessor, the Coors Classic, and a city widely regarded as one of America's most cycling friendly. But history and goodwill only get you so far in the big time stage race game. The price tag for hosting a start or finish was "in excess of $200,000," said Boulder local organizing committee chair Andrew Shoemaker. And that was not in the city's budget.

"We spent a lot of time talking with the organizers and even proposed paying a little more than half that because we felt Boulder brought a certain number of qualitative benefits," explained Shoemaker. "But the organizer's business model is that they have to be in the black from the start, so we couldn't make the connection. We also did the due diligence of looking at the possibility of raising the money. But the prospect of raising $200,000 for a for-profit race in the aftermath of two big wildfires [that both burned near the city in the last two months] was too daunting a task."

Shoemaker also pointed to limited hotel space in Boulder at that time of year due to the returning University of Colorado students. However, it's possible Boulder could still be slotted on the race route, as the week concludes with a stage from Golden to Denver that could easily be routed north to Boulder before heading back south to the state capitol.

No exact route details were given Thursday. Ellen Kramer, Quiznos chief communications officer, said maps, profiles, potential teams and the planned TV package would be revealed in yet another news conference slated for sometime in December. She did note that there would be 120 riders, which breaks down to 15 teams of eight.

High elevations to favor climbers

Also obvious at this point is that this is going to be a race for the mountain men, not the sprinters. During proceedings each host city was given a few minutes on stage to speak, while over their shoulder a TV monitor showed the city's name and elevation. Denver was the lowest at 5280 feet, with Breckenridge highest at 9603. Seven of the 11 cities sit at above 7000 feet.

"The altitude is going to be tough," said Garmin's Tom Danielson, who was joined by teammate Tim Duggan and United Health Care's Rory Sutherland as the pro riders in attendance. "It will compete with the Vuelta some, but I still think most of the top GC guys in the world will come over. It's definitely not going to be a sprinter's race."

An example of the potentially massive degree of difficulty is stage 3 from Gunnison to Aspen. One potential route being tossed around would see riders head north from Gunnison towards Crested Butte, before making a right turn for the long grind up Cottonwood Pass, peak elevation 12,126 feet.

After descending off the east side of that Continental-Divide crossing and down into Buena Vista, riders would turn back to the north, making the push up to Independence Pass, peak elevation 12,095 feet. From there it would be a rapid plunge into Aspen for the finish. Throw in the fact that much of the Cottonwood climb would be on a graded dirt road, and that total distance will be in excess of 140 miles, and you'll have all the makings for a truly epic day in line with anything served up at the Giro d'Italia or elsewhere in Europe.

"It's definitely a race I'll be targeting," added Danielson, a noted climbing specialist who owns numerous hill climb records in and out of Colorado. "Getting to race in my home state in such a big race is going to be really special."

Big names in attendance, but no Armstrong

The prestige of the race could be seen in he quality of the audience at the capitol in Denver. Besides the usual collection of cycling media and enthusiasts, both Colorado's current and newly-elected governors were in attendance – Bill Ritter and John Hickenlooper. There were also members from all the local media outlets, and even a writer from USA Today.

"This is all part of showcasing our state," said governor Ritter, the state's outgoing CEO, who along with Lance Armstrong, Quiznos and Medalist Sports, was instrumental in getting the race off the ground. "We're going to show the rest of the world what a fabulous place this is for biking, how pristine the landscape is, and how great and friendly the people are."

Armstrong was not present at the news conference, a fact that Kramer attributed to a new baby. "Lance is still very much a partner in this race," she said.

Oddly, several hours afterwards, Armstrong had made no mention of the day's events on his usually verbose Twitter feed, instead commenting about how windy it was in Austin, Texas.

Proceedings were not devoid of transcendent sports star power, though. Former Denver Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe was at the event, and was the third person to speak, after Kramer and Ritter. It was a coy move on Quiznos part, knowing full well that pro football is king in Colorado and any way to pull cycling closer to it's distant sporting cousin would go a long way in attracting non-cycling fan interest to their event.

For his part, Sharpe says he's been riding bikes for fitness since his playing days, and continues to do so "once or twice a week."

"The organizers knew I rode so it was a natural fit to get me involved," said Sharpe, who lives in Atlanta and does NFL commentary for CBS Sports, and will be back in Colorado next August to serve as a ceremonial stage starter.

Other notable names in the room included famed coach Chris Carmichael, USA Cycling CEO Steve Johnson and Coors Classic organizer Michael Aisner.

"Of course I'm terribly sad that the epicentre of American cycling isn't going to be included," said Aisner of the Boulder omission. "But to focus on that would be to overlook what a great day this is. We're one step closer to having big time bike racing back in Colorado and that's something we can all get excited about."

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