USA Pro Cycling Challenge brings some of top racers to Colorado

It has been 23 years since international cycling raced on the roads of Colorado. With Stage 1 of the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge starting Monday in Colorado Springs, it has returned in a triumphant manner.

The race will cover over 500 miles of the Rocky Mountains in seven days of racing. For the first time, a race in the U.S. will feature the first-, second- and third-place finishers from the Tour de France: Cadel Evans from Australia and Andy and Frank Schleck from Luxembourg.

One hundred thirty eight of the best riders from around the world will be competing in one of the highest and hardest races in the world, but only one will win. Let’s take a look at some of the contenders.

Here are my dark horses for the podium with their team names and nationalities:

Sergio Henao (Gobernacion de Antioquia/Columbia): Sergio and his team took everyone by surprise at the recently completed Tour of Utah, where he won the first and last stages and finished second overall to Levi Leipheimer. He is accustomed to training and racing in mountainous terrain at altitude and could upset some of the larger teams and riders.

Tejay Van Garderen (HTC/USA): Tejay just won his first race as a professional in the Time Trial during the Tour of Utah on his 23rd birthday. He is one of the up and coming stars of the American peloton. He also just completed his first Tour de France, where he was aggressive and a vital part of the lead out train for Green Jersey winner Mark Cavendish.

The big name contenders include:

Cadel Evans (BMC Cycling/Australia): Evans is the No. 1 rated cyclist in the world and the current Tour de France champion. He has had a whirlwind schedule since his win in France and only arrived at altitude last week. For this reason, I don’t think he will finish in the top five.

Andy and Frank Schleck (Team Leopard Trek/Luxembourg): The brothers finished 2-3 in last month’s Tour de France, and Andy had a spectacular stage win in the Alps. The course should be suited well for both of them, but the lack of a true mountain-top finish will hinder their chances. Additionally, the altitude will take a toll and I don’t think either one will be on the podium.

Ivan Basso (Team Liquigas/Italy): Basso has twice won the Giro D’Italia and placed second and third in previous editions of the Tour. He crashed on his face in May, which hampered his preparations for the Tour and he finished a distant eighth. He has not had many results this year and may be looking to finish the year on a high note. However, I do not think he will finish on the podium.

Robert Gesink (Rabobank/Netherlands): Robert had a fantastic early season, highlighted by his victory in the Tour of Oman, but has struggled to find his form this summer. He was picked as a potential podium contender in France but managed to finish only 33rd. I do not think he will be a contender for the podium.

Christian Vande Velde (Garmin/USA): Christian has been plagued by injuries since his improbable fourth-place finish in the 2009 Tour de France. However, he seems to be finding some good form and was gaining strength in the latter part of this year’s TDF. His climbing and time trial abilities will ensure he is in the mix, but I do not think he will be on the podium.

Tom Danielson (Garmin/Colorado, USA): Tommy D has been a longtime resident of Durango, but recently moved to Boulder. He participated in his first Tour de France this year and was the top American, placing ninth. He also showed some good form in Utah and has lived at altitude for a long time.

Levi Leipheimer (Radioshack/USA): Leipheimer has had one of his best seasons yet with overall victories in the Tour of Switzerland and the Tour of Utah. He endured several nasty crashes in the Tour de France, but showed his grit by riding all the way to Paris. He is a three-time winner of the Tour of California and always races well in America. He is very motivated to win this race.

These are some of the best riders in the world, but only three can climb on the podium. Here are my picks:

1: Tejay Van Garderen. This will be his coronation as the next big winner for the USA

2: Levi Leipheimer

3: Local favorite Tommy D.

I do not think any of the powerful international stars will be upsetting the American apple cart, but the Colombians are relatively unknown, aggressive and dangerous.

And although I know it is foolish to try to pick the podium, I am sure of one thing: Colorado and sporting fans will be the biggest winners. With any luck, we will see these stars in our own backyard as the race gallops over Colorado National Monument in 2012. Don’t give up hope yet.


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