Light the fuse, Aspen.
Let the daytime fireworks begin.
The explosion of color, sound and speed that is professional bicycle racing will return today with the Aspen/Snowmass Circuit Race, the 61-mile opening stage of the 2014 USA Pro Cycling Challenge.
The first blast in the seven-stage bike race — starting at 2 p.m. today — will send the field of 128 pro cyclists on a three-lap course of high-speed racing from Aspen to Snowmass Village to McLain Flats and back to Aspen, where the colored-light show will race down Smuggler Avenue through Aspen’s West End.
Chief among the protagonists for today’s stage and the entirety of the USA Pro Challenge will be the pyrotechnicians of the power teams, the top-level cycling squads in the 16-team field.
“To race in front of my family and friends is always special,” said defending overall champion and Aspen resident Tejay van Garderen, the leader of the BMC Racing Team.
Van Garderen and BMC share a history of success in the three-year run of the USA Pro Challenge. BMC won the team title last year to go along with van Garderen’s individual crown — his third consecutive year on the podium in the Colorado stage race.
Seated immediately to van Garderen’s right at the Sunday news conference at the Hotel Jerome, was Tom Danielson, of the equally powerful Garmin-Sharp team.
“The (overall) route suits me better this year,” Danielson said of the 535-mile, climbing-intensive 2014 course. “But it suits the guy to my left (van Garderen) really, really well. Tejay is the ... favorite here.”
With that, the two overall race heavies exchanged a glance and a smile.
“Everyone you see here has a possibility to win this race,” van Garderen said as he gestured to a star-studded dais that included Olympic medalist Michael Rogers, of Australia (Tinkoff-Saxo), Ivan Basso, of Italy (Cannondale), Rafal Majka, of Poland (Tinkoff-Saxo), Leopold Konig, of Czechoslovakia (Team Netapp-Endura), Frank Schleck, of Luxembourg (Trek Factory Racing), and Jens Voigt, the 42-year-old from Germany (Trek) who is closing his illustrious racing career at the 2014 USA Pro Challenge.
Rogers won a stage in the Tour de France and a stage of the Giro d’Italia this year.
Basso is a two-time Giro winner with seven Giro stage wins. Twice he has been on the podium at the Tour de France.
Majka, coming off the overall title in the Tour of Poland, won two Tour de France stages this year as well as the top climber’s jersey.
Van Garderen, for his part, is coming off a fifth-place overall finish at the 2014 Tour de France. He’s been in Aspen training for two weeks in advance of today’s opening stage.
“It is pretty cool starting (the race) in my hometown. ... It’s kind of like Ivan (Basso) at the Giro,” said van Garderen, who is married to Aspen native Jessica Phillips, herself a former pro bike racer. “My house is just off the circuit (course).”
In fact, van Garderen said he and his teammates stopped by his house for a snack and break as they did a team ride on the Aspen/Snowmass Circuit course over the weekend.
He said finally winning the overall title last year after finishing so close in 2011 (third) and 2012 (second) was particularly gratifying.
“Last year’s win, ... that was incredible,” said van Garderen, who also won the Tour of California title last year.
He and Danielson agree that every stage in a seven-stage event like the USA Pro Challenge is critical, especially the opening circuit race.
“This is like seven one-day races,” said Danielson, who lives in Boulder. “You have to do everything.”
He said the Colorado stages will include short climbs, long climbs, windy stretches and recovery challenges — all at high elevation.
“And in the circuit races, position is critical,” Danielson said.
The first edition of the Aspen/Snowmass Circuit Race validated the positioning theory when Cannondale worked Peter Sagan to the front on McLain Flats Road (on the final lap) for his eventual victory on Aspen’s Main Street.
Teams are expected to scramble for position again this year on the final 20-mile loop.
Another circuit race is on the 2014 USA Pro Challenge itinerary — Colorado Springs and Garden of the Gods on Thursday.
But before they hit Colorado Springs, the cyclists will take two major mountain tests, including Stage 2, which starts in Aspen at 11 a.m. Tuesday and finishes at Mount Crested Butte.
The second stage will enter new territory as cyclists go from Aspen to Basalt to Carbondale and then up Highway 133 to McClure Pass and on to Kebler Pass, where they will encounter 40 kilometers of dirt surface.
“The dirt, ... that will make the Crested Butte stage even more decisive,” Danielson said, adding that he is pleased to see a mountaintop finish this year — Stage 3 from Gunnison over Monarch Pass to Salida for a turnaround and then a climb back up to the finish at Monarch Ski Area.
“Any day can be decisive,” van Garderen said. “Every day is unpredictable.”
On Friday, the cyclists will go from Woodland Park to Breckenridge, with the Vail Time Trial set for Saturday.
The race will conclude Sunday with the Boulder-Golden-Denver finishing stage.
That’s 525 miles in a week of racing.
“Really, to win this race overall you have to be a great all-around cyclist,” Danielson said.