‘Queen Stage’ of USA Pro Cycling Challenge features two tough climbs

Bathed in lip balm to protect him from the sun at 12,000 feet in elevation, a cyclist reaches the top of Independence Pass above Aspen during a recent ride. What’s being billed as the “Queen Stage” of the seven-day USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado in August will feature not only Independence Pass but Cottonwood Pass, which also tops 12,000 feet and connects Gunnison and Buena Vista.

ASPEN — High above Aspen at 12,000-foot Independence Pass on a recent afternoon, Katherine Sand beamed a smile as sunny as the weather after pedaling up 4,000 feet from town only one year after taking up bicycling.

“I’m proof that you can teach an old dog new tricks,” said Sand, 47.

Having found out what it takes to get up Highway 82 to the pass also gave Sand a particular appreciation for what top cyclists will face Aug. 24 during the Gunnison-to-Aspen stage of the seven-day USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado.

While racing 131 miles, they’ll also tackle not one 12,000-foot pass, but two. They’ll first encounter unpaved Cottonwood Pass on their way to Buena Vista before crossing the Continental Divide a second time at Independence Pass.

“I can’t imagine. I think they’re like superheroes,” Sand said.

But even superheroes’ talents can be tested. Although the pro cyclists are used to big climbing days in the Tour de France and other European stage races, those events don’t take place at Colorado’s elevations.

Perhaps that’s why the Gunnison-to-Aspen leg is being touted as the “Queen Stage” of the race.

“It’s going to be amazing. These guys haven’t really raced above 12,000 feet, and doing it twice, it’s going to be quite a stage,” said Mark Joseph, the technical director of the Aspen stage.

“No matter how fit you are, when you get up to 10,000 feet, oxygen debt just has a big effect on you.”

Pro cyclists will have a former colleague to thank — or blame — for such torture.

Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, who has a home in Aspen and rides the pass and other local roads and trails, teamed up with fellow cycling enthusiast Bill Ritter, while Ritter was Colorado’s governor, to push the idea of bringing a pro cycling stage race back to Colorado.

The state was famous for its Coors Classic in the 1980s. Joseph also organized some of the Aspen stages of that race, which sometimes highlighted Independence Pass. Vail Pass was also part of the Coors Classic, and an uphill time trial over Vail will challenge this year’s racers the day after the Queen Stage.

The Coors Classic also used to feature the “Tour of the Moon” stage over Colorado National Monument, but the National Park Service nixed the idea of the new race having a stage there.

Top international teams plan to compete at this year’s race, including one of Armstrong’s former teams, Team RadioShack, and Saxo Bank-SunGard, which features three-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador, although at last report it was uncertain whether his racing schedule this year will include the Colorado race.

The Aspen/Snowmass Women’s Pro Stage Race, featuring elite international riders, is Aug. 22-24.

A criterium race, consisting of laps around downtown Aspen, is scheduled for earlier the same day the men will be arriving.

“Anyone who’s a cycling fan is going to love it,” Joseph said of the Aspen events.

Some fans will pedal up some or all of the pass to find a spot to watch the men’s race in progress. In town, people can follow the race on a big screen and then cheer cyclists across the finish line.

Lodging deals for the race week are being offered. For day visitors, Joseph recommends parking outside of town, such as at the Roaring Fork Transit Agency intercept lot at the Highway 82 turnoff to Snowmass Village, and then pedaling into Aspen or taking a bus. More information can be found at http://www.aspenupcc.com.

Cycling enthusiasts who don’t come for the race might still consider a visit sometime just to take on the pass themselves. They will experience what not just a Tour de France winner, but hordes of Aspen two-wheelers have come to love.

“It’s one of the few paved roads that is this high,” Joseph said. “It’s beautiful and it’s challenging to do.”

Put another way, it’s simply breathtaking.


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