Independence Pass returns to USA Pro Challenge bike course in 2015 | AspenTimes.com

Independence Pass returns to USA Pro Challenge bike course in 2015

Cyclists ride near Twin Lakes in a breakaway during stage two of the 2013 USA Pro Cycling Challenge after descending Independence Pass on their way toward Breckenridge. Independence Pass is one of the race's iconic climbs and it's expected to be back on the tour for 2015.

The USA Pro Challenge will return to Aspen for the fifth straight year in 2015 and will renew its climb to the lofty heights of Independence Pass, according to event CEO Shawn Hunter.

The race, which follows routes exclusively in Colorado, will be held Aug. 17 to 23, starting in Steamboat Springs and ending in Denver. The event organizers announced the host cities and towns at a news conference Thursday in Steamboat Springs.

Stage 3 will go from Copper Mountain Resort to Aspen on Aug. 19. Stage 4 will launch the following day in Aspen and end in Breckenridge. Specific routes won't be announced until spring, but Hunter provided a glimpse into what Aspen race fans can expect.

"I can almost guarantee we will incorporate Independence Pass one day, and probably two," he said.

“I can almost guarantee we will incorporate Independence Pass one day and probably two.”
Shawn Hunter, USA Pro Challenge

The Pro Challenge has been in Aspen for at least one stage every year of its existence. The past two years it has started in Aspen with a circuit race, then headed out of town on Stage 2. Last year was the only year the race didn't incorporate Independence Pass at least once.

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Hunter said there was a "magical" feeling in 2011 when the racers crested Independence Pass in the inaugural year. An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 spectators greeted the peloton at the summit. Many people camped and partied the night before in anticipation of the event. The White River National Forest Supervisor's Office enforced an existing camping ban starting in 2012. No camping is allowed within one-quarter mile of Highway 82 from mile marker 56 to 66, which includes the summit.

Race fan and Aspenite Erik Skarvan said the first year "was our Tour de France" because of the electric atmosphere at the summit. People dressed in the same outfits that fans do at the Tour to cheer and sometimes torment the riders, he said. The best character was a devil running alongside the riders as they strained and suffered while climbing to the top of the 12,095-foot pass.

Skarvan said Independence Pass belongs in the Colorado race. "It's the highest climb in the world tour," he said.

He said he hopes the Forest Service will reconsider its management plan and allow camping at and near the summit. Roping off the most fragile terrain could prevent ecological damage, he said.

"They're not going to open it up carte blanche. It's not going to be an orgy up there," Skarvan said.

Raifie Bass, another Aspen bicycling fan, said Independence Pass can generate the same type of energy that exists among Tour de France race fans when routes go over the high passes of the Alps and Pyrenees mountains. Fans in Colorado would likely camp two nights on Independence Pass to catch the action, if possible, he said. He also urged the Forest Service to revise its management plan during the race.

Hunter said his staff hopes to talk to the Forest Service about management at Independence Pass. "It would be great to see camping return," he said.

Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer said the camping ban at the summit has been in place since well before the race through a special order. It just wasn't enforced very well in 2011, she said. The Forest Service won't lift the camping ban in 2015, according to Schroyer. "It's a sensitive area," she said.

The agency is making an effort to educate people that camping is allowed at numerous campgrounds on both sides of the pass. It also will allow camping outside the campgrounds in areas that will be designated prior to the race, Schroyer said.

Bass said he was glad that Independence Pass is back in the Pro Challenge's plans as a route for the racers. It deserves to be included every year, he said.

"Absolutely, I think it really is the Queen Stage," Bass said, referring to the stage of bicycle tours that are expected to be the toughest or most thrilling.

A good candidate for the Queen Stage in the 2015 Pro Challenge will be on the second day, when the stage starts in Steamboat Springs and finishes with a mountaintop finish at Arapahoe Basin.

Hunter said he is excited to add the first-time host sites of Copper Mountain and Arapahoe Basin as well as get returning hosts such as Aspen and Steamboat Springs. Aspen and the scenery around it have provided some of the most dynamic and successful stages of the race since "day one," Hunter said.

"We don't want to mess with success," he said.

Hunter also said the 2015 course will be particularly fan-friendly and easy to follow.

The route is compact, with four stages partially or fully located in Summit County, providing easy access for fans from the Front Range. The race will start with a circuit race in Steamboat Springs. Stage 2 will cover Steamboat to Arapahoe Basin. Stage 3 goes from Copper Mountain to Aspen. Stage 4 goes from Aspen to Breckenridge. Stage 5 will be an individual time trial in Breckenridge. Stage 6 is yet to be determined. Fans can vote on possible routes by going to http://www.pro challenge.com/2015stage6 before 11:59 p.m. Dec. 12. The final stage will cover Golden to Denver.

Vail is out of the lineup for 2015, unless fans select it as part of the Stage 6 course.

Part-time Aspenite Tejay van Garderen has won the past two Pro Challenges. "I am so happy to hear the USA Pro Challenge is going through Aspen again," van Garderen said in a statement released through the race organization. "It is always great to be able to race in front of my family and close friends. Of course, I'm curious to see the route they will pick, and I am expecting it to be the most challenging route yet."

scondon@aspentimes.com

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