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ASPEN, Colorado (VN) — Defending champion Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) and recent Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah winner Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp) top the list of pre-race favorites for the fourth annual USA Pro Challenge, which kicks off Monday in Aspen.
At a press conference held at the Jerome Hotel, directly in front of the start/finish line for stage 1’s three-lap circuit race, van Garderen and Danielson spoke about one another, other GC challengers, and the difficulty of the seven-stage race, which delivers 20,000 feet of elevation gain over 525 miles, at altitudes over 11,000 feet above sea level.
Monday’s opening stage, a 65-mile journey with almost 7,000 feet of elevation gain, begins at 7,900 feet above sea level and will immediately determine which riders are acclimated to the thin air of Colorado’s high mountains.
Van Garderen, who lives in Aspen, won the race last year after twice finishing on the podium of the Pro Challenge. He’s coming off a fifth-place finish at the Tour de France, and is arguably the sole five-star favorite to take the overall victory.
“It’s pretty cool starting in my hometown,” van Garderen said. “Just this morning I went on a training ride with my boys, and my house was on the circuit, so we stopped and had lunch, played with my dog and saw my wife and little girl. I’ve been here in Aspen for two weeks, training, and getting back into the rhythm of being a pro cyclist. I feel like myself again. I think I’m on good form, and I’ve prepared well.”
Danielson is fresh off a dominating victory at the Tour of Utah, his second consecutive win there, where the Garmin rider was in a league of his own on that race’s long, high-altitude climbs.
“Every year I get super excited about this race,” Danielson said. “Colorado is so true to my heart. My whole cycling career really started here. Every part of Colorado represents a part of cycling to me. Initially when this race was created, I got super motivated. In the past three years, we’ve hit everything that represents cycling to Colorado. It’s been really exciting to be a part of that from the beginning. This year is definitely the hardest course the organizers have made — some days are downhill finishes, some days are circuits. You have to be a complete cyclist to win this race. It’s really exciting to see how far the race has come.”
Several other big names in attendance downplayed their chances for overall victory, citing lack of recent form, lack of acclimatization to Colorado’s high altitude, or both.
NetApp-Endura’s Leopold Konig, who finished seventh overall at the Tour de France, said he’d fallen ill from an insect bite that brought an infection and subsequent fever.
“To be honest, I feel more tired now than I did right after the Tour,” Konig said. “On the way here I got bit by a nasty insect, and I spent the last two days in bed. I’m really disappointed. I wanted to make it hard for Tejay, but now, this insect has made it harder for me.”
Tinkoff-Saxo riders Rafal Majka and Michael Rogers, stage winners at the Tour de France last month, both said they didn’t anticipate contending for the general classification.
Majka’s 2014 season has already been long and difficult — and successful — with a top-10 finish at the Giro d’Italia, two stage wins (and the KOM title) at the Tour de France, and a hard-fought overall win at the Tour of Poland earlier this month. The Polish rider said he would likely be contending for a stage win rather than fighting for the overall.
“I feel good, but it will be difficult, getting here just four days ago,” Majka said. “The high altitude is a factor. Today, in training, I went easy, but I felt like it was my first time on the bike. [Racing in thin air] could be really, very painful. After the second or third stage I should become better, and if not me, then maybe my teammates.”
Rogers, who finished 25th overall at the 2013 Pro Challenge, said he’d spent the past few weeks resting, after a 2014 season that has seen him win mountain stages at the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France.
“I’m a bit worried about what I have got myself into,” Rogers said. “I hope I can ride like I did last year. I know it took me a few days to find my rhythm, to find my legs. I’m coming off a heavy couple of months, and I’ve had some down time, so for me, it’s more about getting back into it. I wouldn’t expect to be up there in GC, but certainly trying to win a stage is possible.”
Cannondale’s Ivan Basso, who finished 42nd overall at the Tour of Utah, almost 59 minutes behind Danielson, said he hoped he’d gained both form and an adaptation to thin air after three weeks in the Rocky Mountains.
“I’ve already spent three weeks here [in the U.S.], so the altitude is OK for me, but the problem is the speed of the bunch,” Basso said. “When you go full gas, you can’t really recover. I hope this week I can get back the form from Utah. I have invested all of my effort and time after the Giro d’Italia to be in top form for the Pro Challenge. I think it’s a really hard week, but when the race is special the riders can give more than 100 percent.”
Trek Factory Racing’s Frank Schleck is also in Colorado. Schleck finished 12th overall at the Tour de France last month; at the 2011 Pro Challenge, he finished 13th overall.
“It is an exciting course they’ve put together, but it comes with a lot of pain and suffering,” Schleck said. “It’s going to be a really hard and tough race. I like climbing, I prefer it and I think I have an advantage there, but the altitude is what’s really killer. You have to take care of how your body reacts.”
With Konig, Majka, Rogers, Schleck, and Basso all questionable, all eyes turned to van Garderen and Danielson, a pair of Colorado residents riding on American teams, highly motivated to win one of the biggest races in America.
Danielson finished third overall last year, 1:42 behind van Garderen. In 2013, the BMC rider put time into Danielson on three occasions: 18 seconds on the stage finish in Breckenridge, when van Garderen followed an attack by Peter Sagan over the top of Moonstone Road; 22 seconds on a wet stage finish in Beaver Creek, when Danielson was dropped on the descent of Bachelor Gulch leading into the finishing climb; and 1:02 at the 10-mile Vail time trial.
Both the Breckenridge finish and the Vail TT return in 2014.
New in 2014 is the race’s first true mountaintop finish, on stage 3, when the peloton tackles Monarch Pass, which tops out at 11,312 feet, before descending the eastern slope of the pass, riding two nine-mile loops through Salida, and then returning to tackle 20 miles of climbing up the eastern slope to the finish, at Monarch Mountain ski resort, at 10,820 feet.
On paper, the stage 3 summit finish, and stage 6 uphill time trial, look to be the most decisive. However, both Danielson and van Garderen were hesitant to pinpoint any one particular stage as the most likely to determine the race winner.
“You have to look at this race as seven single-day races,” Danielson said. “The guy that wins this race will have to be able to do everything — this race has crosswinds, short climbs, long climbs, dirt roads, tricky descents, a time trial, circuit races where positioning is critical … I can’t put my finger on one stage that will win you the race but on any one of those seven, you can lose the race.
“I think the joker stage is stage 1, here in Aspen,” Danielson continued. “Just out on the course, pre-riding it, you see some high heart rates and some sore legs. It will determine who’s ready and who is not. I think the route suits me better this year. But it also suits Tejay really well. I have a good shot, but I have to respect that Tejay is a favorite.”
Van Garderen said that while on paper the summit finish and time trial looked to be the most decisive, three iterations of the Pro Challenge have taught him that anything can happen at any time.
“After three years of racing in Colorado, you realize that you don’t know what’s going to happen,” van Garderen said. “Any day can be decisive. Last year, on the circuits in Aspen, you saw the Tour de France champion [Chris Froome], Andrew Talansky, and Richie Porte all lose minutes on day 1. That could well happen again tomorrow. On paper, the stage into Breckenridge last year didn’t look like much, but Sagan attacked, I followed, and that shook up the GC. The ‘flat’ stage of this year’s race does four circuits of the Garden of the Gods [in Colorado Springs].”
With van Garderen and Danielson both racing to win, the USA Pro Challenge could once again shape up to be a battle royal between the BMC and Garmin squads. Whether the winner will be the defending champion, a fourth overall winner in four years, or a surprise, will be determined in a week’s time, in the high mountains of Colorado.