While the USA Pro Challenge parcours is considered tougher than its 2011 inaugural edition, with likely only one stage for the sprinters and more than 42,000 feet (12,800m) of climbing over its 682.7 mile (1,098.7km) parcours, the general classification contenders expect the final yellow jersey will be decided by a mere handful of seconds.
In 2011 Levi Leipheimer beat runner-up Christian Vande Velde by 11 seconds overall, with Tejay van Garderen rounding out the podium at 17 seconds. Speaking at the pre-race press conference on the Fort Lewis College campus in Durango, defending champion Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) expected a similar GC scenario this year.
"It's going to be difficult because there's not a lot of opportunities to gain time, but there's a lot of opportunities to lose time," said Leipheimer. "You need a strong team and clearly BMC and Garmin have brought strong teams. We have the utmost respect for everybody in this race."
Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Sharp) admitted to being caught off guard on the opening road stage of the 2011 edition, where Levi Leipheimer prevailed on the punchy final climb to Mt. Crested Butte, and stated that's it's all about maintaining consistency throughout the upcoming seven stages.
"I think it's going to be nickel and dimes all throughout the week," said Vande Velde. "Like Levi said, you're not going to gain a lot of time but you can lose a lot of time. Levi took all of his time out of me on that first day last year in Crested Butte and that was game, set and match right there. It was unexpected and we thought it would be different. There was a brutal time trial to Vail Pass and we were only separated by a five tenths of a second.
"Like Crested Butte last year and up in Beaver Creek, those are all explosive climbs and if you're having a bad day you're going to lose chunks of time. For sure, Flagstaff is going to be brutal. It's all depending on when you have a bad day."
Tejay van Garderen experienced one bad day in the this year's Tour de France, yet bounced back to finish fifth overall and decisively claim the young rider's jersey. The USA Pro Challenge, however, is a different animal.
"A three-week Tour is completely different from a one-week Tour," said van Garderen. "At the Tour [de France] I had one really bad day on the first summit finish and if that happens this week you can't come back from that. There's not three weeks to make up for that."
Vande Velde's teammate Tom Danielson, fourth overall in 2011 at 21 seconds behind Leipheimer, spoke of the challenges of altitude, a hallmark of the USA Pro Challenge, highlighted by three ascents topping out in excess of 12,000 feet and day-after-day of racing in rarified air.
"Initially when you look at the route you see a long monstrosity of a climb and you see a short one and think 'nothing's going to happen on that one' while on a huge one you think people are going to be all over the place," said Danielson. "Look at last year on Independence Pass, at the end there were 30 people there and you look at the short ones where Levi won at Crested Butte and it was ones and twos all over the place and those were the biggest time gaps.
"You have to be realistic, altitude does change things. Altitude makes the short stuff decisive. With the level we have here when the first guys are punching it at the front they're taking everyone past their limit and for the last part all they can do is crawl to the finish. Look at Levi, he did a Philippe Gilbert last year at Crested Butte. He's never down anything like that before - altitude does crazy stuff," said Danielson to a round of laughter in the Concert Hall venue.
The Boulder resident, however, considers the penultimate stage with its climb to Flagstaff to be the race's pivotal moment.
"That being said, I think that Flagstaff is the race. It looks short on paper but as we know it's anything but that. It's going to be nasty and it's definitely not some power climb."