Independence Pass won’t be part of the 2014 USA Pro Challenge, but Roaring Fork Valley cycling fans won’t be cheated.
Stage 1 on Aug. 18 will be a circuit race through Aspen and Snowmass Village that follows the same route as last year.
Stage 2 on Aug. 19 will be a road race from Aspen to Mount Crested Butte that will include sprints through Basalt and Carbondale and scrambles over McClure Pass and Kebler Pass.
Organizers of the 4-year-old event announced details of the routes at a news conference in Denver on Tuesday. “It will be the best yet for America’s race,” said Shawn Hunter, CEO of the USA Pro Challenge.
Many of the world’s top professional male cyclists have participated in the event the past three years and are expected back this year. The Pro Challenge has placed Colorado back on the map as one of the top cycle-racing venues in the world.
Aspen and nine other Colorado cities and towns already knew they were hosts for 2014. The exact routes for the 550-mile event, set for Aug. 18 to 24, were unveiled Tuesday.
“Stage 1 of the 2013 race was such a success, so it’s back for 2014,” organizers announced at the news conference.
The race will start in downtown Aspen, exit on Highway 82, turn onto Owl Creek Road, grind up to Snowmass Village, depart the town on Brush Creek Road, climb the short but steep Medicine Bow Road, descend on Upper Ranch Road to Smith Hill Way and then climb back to McLain Flats Road to connect into Cemetery Lane and Aspen’s West End.
The racers will make three laps of nearly 22 miles each, with 2,300 feet of climbing per lap.
Aspen will host the start of Stage 2, just as it did last year. Instead of heading east on Highway 82 and huffing and puffing up Independence Pass, the racers will leave Aspen on Highway 82 and quickly veer off onto Cemetery Lane and McLain Flats Road. They will descend W/J Hill and hook into Highway 82 via Smith Way. The course will travel through Old Snowmass and exit the highway onto Two Rivers Road through Basalt and reconnect with the highway through the midvalley before exiting again at Catherine Store and entering Carbondale on the back road.
After reconnecting with Highway 133, the route goes past Redstone and over the relatively short but intense McClure Pass. The racers will make the screaming descent on the Paonia side of the pass, fly by Paonia Reservoir and turn onto Kebler Pass Road for the nearly 31-mile trip to Crested Butte. From there, they will make the final grueling grunt up to Mount Crested Butte.
The 2014 version of the race will replace the beauty and brutality of 12,095-foot Independence Pass for two smaller but challenging passes in McClure, at 8,755 feet in elevation, and Kebler, at 10,007 feet.
The racers will contend with a gravel road on much of Kebler Pass, though it is typically hard-packed and coated with a dust retardant. Both approaches to the summit are paved.
“It’s a lot more dirt than pavement, believe me,” said Dave Wiens, an expert mountain-bike racer who represented Crested Butte and Gunnison at the news conference.
Aspen cycling fans mostly welcomed news of the routes, even though Independence Pass is out of the loop for the first time.
“It’s one of those iconic stages you always want to see,” said former Aspen mayor and avid cyclist Mick Ireland, referring to Independence Pass. He said he understands why the organizers wanted to make changes.
Aspen cycling fan Raifie Bass said he was glad the circuit race returns on Stage 1 with the course intact.
“I think it’s great having them blast through town,” he said. He watched the stage from Main Street last year but might venture out to W/J Hill near Woody Creek, a steep climb that attracted lots of spectators.
Ireland positioned himself to watch parts of the three laps of the circuit race from four different vantage points last year.
“It’s a deceptively difficult stage,” he said.
Bass said he looks forward to the “energy of seeing the peloton fly through downtown Carbondale and downtown Basalt” during Stage 2.
Allyn Harvey, a Roaring Fork Valley native who is now a Carbondale town councilman, said “people are stoked” to have the stage come through Carbondale.
“This is a huge deal,” he said. “It really creates a sense that Carbondale is a bike town.”
Cycling fans in the Roaring Fork Valley have more than three months to contemplate the best spot to watch the Stage 2 race.
Bass noted that there are numerous places to camp in the lush aspen groves of Kebler Pass. On the other hand, McClure Pass provides great views of the Crystal River Valley below and the approach to the summit, Ireland said.
From a racing perspective, the peloton, or pack of riders, is expected to remain tight from Aspen to at least the base of McClure Pass.
“I don’t see anyone blowing out of (Aspen) and taking off,” Bass said. “They’re not going to hit a hill until McClure Pass. That will start separating the pack out.” Kebler Pass could separate the pack out further, he said.
Ireland suspects the pack will remain tight over McClure and Kebler passes since neither is grueling for the top racers.
“It’s hard to imagine someone getting a real break,” he said.
Many of the racers could be bunched all the way to Crested Butte, nearly to the end of the 105-mile stage. Past races have proven the last few miles from Crested Butte to Mount Crested Butte, a particularly steep stretch, will provide a fantastic finish.
Independence Pass has been part of the USA Pro Challenge for each of its three years. In 2012, the racers climbed the east side of the pass on the stage from Gunnison to Aspen and then toughed out a climb over the west side the next day en route to Beaver Creek. The summit of Independence Pass is at 12,095.
“I think it’s good to change it up,” Bass said.
The third day of the 2014 race will be one of the more challenging in the event’s history. Racers will start in Gunnison and climb over the 11,312-foot Monarch Pass before descending into Salida and making a couple of loops before backtracking to a finish at Monarch Mountain Ski Area at an elevation of 10,820.
Stage 4 will be a circuit race in Colorado Springs.
Stage 5 will be a 104-mile race from Woodland Park to Breckenridge.
Stage 6 will be the Vail individual time trial, which has become legendary in prior races.
The race will end on Aug. 24 with a 78-mile race from Boulder to Golden and then on to the finish in Denver.
“I’m still looking for the easy stage here,” cyclist Benjamin Day, of the United Healthcare team, said at the news conference.
“I’m still looking for the easy stage here.”