The fourth USA Pro Challenge, held August 18-24, will see some of the biggest stars from the Tour de France lining up for an intense battle across the Rocky Mountains.
The altitude, the fans, the spectacular scenery, good roads, and intense racing have made the USA Pro Challenge an essential stop following the big battles in the European grand tours.
Defending champion Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), fresh off a fifth place overall at the Tour, will face a stiff challenge as he races to become the first rider to win consecutive titles at the USA Pro Challenge. He had a wild ride at the Tour, matching his career-best fifth overall. Starting the Tour as the designated leader at BMC, van Garderen delivered the goods despite a rough and tumble three weeks. He crashed four times in the first week, and then fell ill with bronchitis, but he rolled out of the Alps with the podium within reach. One bad day in the Pyrénées cost him a shot at the podium, but he rode with pride in the final time trial to secure a top-five overall. For the Pro Challenge, van Garderen will be racing to win, with eyes on repeating his 2013 breakthrough victory. The Colorado resident said his victory in last year’s edition helped boost his confidence, and another big win will serve as confirmation that the 26-year-old has reached the absolute elite of the sport.
Supporting Van Garderen will be his longtime friend Peter Stetina, a Colorado native who is in his first year with BMC Racing after several years in the Garmin organization. At his Tour de France debut in July, Stetina rode strongly in support of van Garderen in the Alps and the Pyrénées. Expect the two to assert themselves in the Colorado race.
There is no team that views the USA Pro Challenge as its hometown race the way the American Garmin-Sharp squad does. A Colorado-based team — team manager Jonathan Vaughters grew up in Denver — the team has had a local presence for a decade now, recruiting many of its riders from Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, and Golden. Garmin has had a rider on the overall podium all three years the race has been in existence, including an overall victory with Christian Vande Velde in 2012. Clearly, this race matters hugely to the squad. American Tom Danielson and Colombian Janier Acevedo will contend for the overall title.
Danielson is hot off an overall win at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, where he rode in a league of his own, climbing with, or ahead of, some of the best climbers in the sport, including grand tour winners Cadel Evans and Chris Horner. It was Danielson’s second consecutive overall win in Utah; last year he finished third overall at the Pro Challenge, a sign that success in Utah does not guarantee victory in Colorado.
A world-class climber, Acevedo, 29, made an incredible leap over the past 12 months, winning the stage to Beaver Creek with Jamis-Hagens Berman, a result that saw him picked up by WorldTour team Garmin-Sharp, landing him in the 2014 Tour de France. Unfortunately, Acevedo abandoned the Tour before he could show his stuff in the mountains. Fully recovered, Acevedo will hope to return to the form that saw him finish on the podium at the Amgen Tour of California and the Tour of Utah, and in the top-10 at the Tour of the Gila, the Tour de San Luis, and the Tour de Suisse.
Another pre-race favorite to challenge for the flowers is Tour stage winner Michael Rogers (Tinkoff-Saxo). The three-time world time trial champion may be one of the favorites for overall victory. The 34-year-old Australian is enjoying one of his best seasons ever. Coming into the 2014 season, Rogers had never won a stage in a three-week grand tour. Once considered a challenger for the yellow jersey, Rogers has changed roles to become an elite helper for such riders as Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and current teammate Alberto Contador. That has opened up opportunities for Rogers to go on the attack. He won two stages at the Giro d’Italia, including the prestigious Zoncolan mountain stage, and then helped Tinkoff-Saxo save its Tour following Contador’s early departure, winning a brilliant breakaway stage across the Pyrénées. The Colorado course will provide Rogers with plenty of ground to attack, perhaps pushing for overall victory as well. In 2010, Rogers became the first non-American to win the Amgen Tour of California; he could well become the first at the USA Pro Challenge as well.
Rafal Majka will be riding in support of Rogers at Tinkoff-Saxo. The recently crowned Tour de France king of the mountains finished an impressive sixth overall at the Giro d’Italia. The 24-year-old Polish rider was selected as a last-minute replacement for the Tour. Majka shifted into stage-hunting mode after Contador abandoned, ultimately claiming two mountain stages and narrowly winning the KOM title ahead of yellow jersey Vincenzo Nibali. He then went on to take the overall victory, in early August, at the Tour of Poland. How Majka will adapt to high elevation is unknown, but if he rides like he did in France, the rest of the climbers in the peloton may end up fighting for scraps.
Another revelation of the 2014 Tour de France will be heading to Colorado with high ambitions. Leopold Konig (NetApp-Endura), 26, rode from strength to strength across the Tour, confirming that consistency and a steady hand pays dividends over three weeks. In 2013, Konig won a stage and punched into the top-10 at the Vuelta a España, with a stage win He bettered that result in July, riding to Paris in seventh place overall, a massive result for his NetApp-Endura team, one of four wildcard teams to race the Tour. A solid climber and time trialist, the Czech rider will be one of the podium favorites in Colorado. Long, difficult climbs suit him best. Can he challenge van Garderen for the overall win? Maybe. He won’t have a team as strong as BMC or Garmin, but his top-10s in two grand tours now make his prowess hard to argue with.
Two of the most experienced veterans in the pack will also be lighting up the Colorado roads. Frank Schleck (Trek Factory Racing) and two-time Giro d’Italia winner Ivan Basso (Cannondale) will both be in the mix. The 34-year-old Luxembourger rode out of the Tour with improving form. Schleck struggled early, and lost any podium hopes, but he fought all the way to the end to 12th overall, notching two top-10 stage results in key mountain stages to prove he’ll be a factor in the high roads of Colorado.
Basso, 36, did not race the Tour, and did not feature in the GC battle at the Tour of Utah. Both riders will be on the hunt for breakaways and stage victories.