Here we go again.
The rolling spectacle of the USA Pro Challenge will cycle back into Aspen and Snowmass this week for the fourth consecutive year.
Four years of top-level professional bicycle stage racing in Colorado; four stops in Aspen.
No coincidence there.
“It was a no-brainer to come back to Aspen to start this year,” Shawn Hunter, CEO of the USA Pro Challenge, said in an interview with The Aspen Times. “The circuit race worked so well last year. The local organizing group, with Nancy Lesley, handled everything in such a professional manner. They always have.”
He said the combination of the staging venue at Snowmass Village, where the teams set up shop in the upper parking lots adjacent to the mall, and the racing that incorporates Aspen and Snowmass is perfect for the USA Pro Challenge.
And perfect for television, too.
No coincidence there.
“It was fantastic for the teams at Snowmass ... very efficient,” Hunter said, adding that the cyclists enjoyed the opportunity to feast at the fine restaurants in Aspen and Snowmass Village.
He also said the circuit allowed greater spectator access to the race with the peloton taking three laps on the 22-mile loop that offers scores of prime viewing locations.
Hunter said more circuit events will be incorporated into the future of the USA Pro Challenge with their logistical and fan benefits.
“We should have a big crowd (for the circuit race), and then we’ll have a sendoff on Tuesday morning (for stage 2),” Hunter said, adding that the cyclists heartily endorsed the concept of an Aspen circuit race on the opening day and the start of stage 2 taking off in Aspen the next day.
“Very convenient for the teams,” Hunter said.
For the first time in the short history of the USA Pro Challenge, the race will stage and start in the same place — Snowmass Village and Aspen.
During it’s inaugural tour around Colorado in 2011, the USA Pro Challenge started in Colorado Springs with an individual time trial taking the cyclists through the Garden of the Gods on stage 1.
In Year 2, the Colorado stage race started in Durango. The teams did their pre-race staging on the campus of Fort Lewis College right before the start of the school year. The cyclists rode from Durango to Telluride on the opening stage in 2012.
Last year, the teams set up shop in the upper parking lots at Snowmass Village and prepped for the first circuit race in the history of the USA Pro Challenge.
The fast, competitive racing in the 2013 opening stage and a triumphant victory by cycling superstar Peter Sagan in the inaugural Aspen/Snowmass Circuit Race set the stage for a repeat circuit stage here again this year.
The compelling racing last year, with team positioning a key on the 22-mile loop course, made for compelling television, Hunter said, with coverage again this year by NBC Sports Network.
Plus, the teams will have the experience compiled last year when they challenged the tricky and testy course that includes the quick climb to Snowmass Village from Aspen via Owl Creek Road.
“The teams are more prepared (for the Aspen/Snowmass Circuit Race) this year,” Hunter said. “They know the route. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Racing will begin at 2:10 p.m. Monday, Aug. 18.
The route will start on Main in downtown Aspen with two parade laps before the racing begins and the cyclists head out Highway 82 for the left turn at Owl Creek Road.
Then it’s the climb to the saddle and the rapid-fire descent on Owl Creek Road before the fast left-hander that will take the peloton to Snowmass Village and the intersection with Brush Creek Road.
Right on Brush Creek for the fast, downhill descent that goes almost all the way to Highway 82.
The most critical turn on the course, a sharp left turn that goes immediately up Medicine Bow, is next.
The climb goes on up Medicine Bow and turns back with a vicious right-hand turn onto Upper Ranch Road for another short climb.
Then it’s the descent on the back side of the Cozy Point Road the Highway 82 crossing at Smith Hill Road.
Down to the Roaring Fork River and then up the pesky W/J climb all the way to McLain Flats Road.
Then, back to Aspen via McLain Flats — where Sagan and the Cannondale boys made their winning move on the third lap last year — and then up Cemetery Lane.
The cyclists make the quick descent and ascent of Power Plant Road and charge through Aspen’s West End (on Smuggler) before curling around the Hotel Jerome and racing back down Main.
Eight-six miles of bike racing.
More history; more memories.
“Tom Danielson and that ride into Aspen a couple years ago is one of my favorite memories of the USA Pro Challenge,” Hunter said.
After a solo breakaway on Independence Pass, Danielson rode solo into Aspen and crossed the finish line with the peloton in hot pursuit — perfect for television and cover photos in The Aspen Times.
Last year, Sagan rewrote USA Pro Challenge history by winning the Aspen/Snowmass Circuit Race and using that as a springboard to three other stage wins in 2013. Sagan had trained in the Aspen area for two weeks prior to the 2013 USA Pro Challenge.
He’ll race in the Vuelta a Espana this year instead of the USA Pro Challenge.
Part-time Aspen resident Tejay van Garderen of BMC won the overall title in last year’s USA Pro.
George Hincapie of BMC won the first USA Pro Challenge to finish in Aspen back in 2011, pedaling across the downtown line finish in a steady rain.
Hincapie, since retired, founded the Hincapie Sportswear Development Team which will race in the 2014 USA Pro Challenge in Colorado.
Danielson, of course, is the 2013 overall winner of the Tour of Utah who finished third overall in the USA Pro Challenge last year.
The veteran of multiple rides in the Tour de France and a longtime resident of Boulder has made no secret of his desire to win the overall title at the USA Pro Challenge — his image provided the primary focus for all of the promotional materials associated with the first USA Pro Challenge held in Colorado.
From restaurant table cards to brochures to giant race banners, Danielson cast the image of pro bike racing’s return to Colorado.
Now, the USA Pro Challenge has created a modern history of racing in Colorado to match the colorful early days of the Red Zinger Classic and the Coors Classic — which also made regular appearances in Aspen.
No coincidence there.
The USA Pro Challenge will add a new bit of history when stage 2 takes off from Aspen and finishes in Crested Butte after a first-time trip over McClure Pass and the dirt/gravel Kebler Pass.
“We always like to integrate a couple new elements,” Hunter said, adding that a mountaintop finish at Monarch Pass on the third day of racing also will be a hallmark stage for the USA Pro Challenge this year.
“We won’t have the schedule for 2015 out for a while,” Hunter said. “But it’s safe to say we will always try to incorporate Aspen and Snowmass in some way.”