Colorado up for another challenge

Western Slope on display in cycling race exploding in popularity

It was such a success last year, more of the top teams and cyclists wanted to race in the USA Pro Challenge this year.

More than 1 million spectators watched the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge in 2011, making it one of the largest cycling events in U.S. history.

A total of 126 riders from 24 countries are scheduled to participate in the second Pro Challenge, scheduled to begin Monday in Durango and finish Aug. 26 with a time trial in Denver. The route goes through 12 cities, including Montrose on Tuesday. The seven-day race is a 683-mile course with more than 42,000 feet of climbing.

“We’re really excited about this year’s course,” USA Pro Challenge CEO Shawn Hunter said. “Last year was a great success. We have five new cities this year that bid aggressively to host. Durango is doing a great job with a whole week of activities.

“We have a course with potential to have a leader change each day with over 4,000 feet of vertical climbing. At the time trial (on the final day), 10 to 12 guys could take the title after 700 miles of racing.”

Six of the top 13 finishers from this year’s Tour de France are competing in the USA Pro Challenge. Ten of the top 12 finishers from last year’s Pro Challenge, including the top five, are racing.

Last year’s Pro Challenge winner, Levi Leipheimer, is back to defend his yellow jersey. Runner-up Christian Vande Velde, third-place finisher Tejay Van Garderen and 2011 Tour de France winner, Cadel Evans, are also racing again.

Andy Schleck, the 2010 Tour de France champion, was confirmed to race earlier this month, but withdrew. His pelvis hasn’t healed from a crash in June.

“I think it means the biggest names in the sport are taking this seriously,” Hunter said. “It sits nicely between the Tour de France and the World Championships. It’s one of the biggest races of the year.”

Eleven of the 16 Union Cycliste Internationale pro teams will compete with five UCI continental teams. The Bontrager Livestrong team is racing in the Pro Challenge for the first time.

“It’s huge,” Bontrager Livestrong cyclist Connor O’Leary said. “We really wanted to get in last year. The guys are riding well right now. I think we can do well.”

Bontrager Livestrong is coming off a successful race a week ago in the Tour of Utah with riders placing fourth and fifth overall. Joe Dembrowski received the best young rider jersey.

“(Tour of Utah) was a good warm-up race,” O’Leary said. “We are recovering this (past) week. We’re riding well for the U.S. Pro Challenge. We have a lot of confidence.”

O’Leary, 21, who is from Salt Lake City, is playing a supporting role one year after returning to the team after treatment for testicular cancer. The cancer has been in remission for more than one year, O’Leary said.

“It was pretty rough,” O’Leary said. “I was in Europe with the national team. Some things weren’t right. We got home and the doctor said I had testicular cancer. I went from going to nationals to surgery.

“I’ve been pretty active and fit my whole life. I had to start at ground zero. It was eye-opening and humbling. It’s good to be back at the top.”

O’Leary, who turned pro in 2009, said he hasn’t seen much of Colorado and is excited to see the scenery as well as race.

He can expect large, enthusiastic crowds in each city and along the route.

Probably more than last year, Hunter said.

“It’s a credit to Colorado and the people that supported us,” Hunter said. “I’ve been to a couple Italian races this spring and others in America. The crowd and passion doesn’t compare to Colorado. In any of these communities, you can feel the excitement and the buzz.

“People are embracing it. I anticipate bigger crowds this year.”

Hunter believes the race will continue to grow in popularity and has a long future in Colorado.

“We have all the ingredients,” he said. “We’re looking long-term. The greatest part is we get to change the route each year. There will always be some new components each year, but Denver will likely be involved each year because of its population.”

Grand Junction has been unsuccessful in its attempts to be part of a race stage. But Hunter said that could change.

“Grand Junction is always part of our conversation,” he said. “It’s a great community. I’d say it’s highly probable in the future. We don’t know 2013 yet, but we will meet with city officials and map out options. Hopefully someday, we can showcase the (Colorado National) Monument as part of it.”


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