Aspen Times Weekly: Return to the Pass |

Aspen Times Weekly: Return to the Pass

PITKIN COUNTY, CO - AUGUST 23: Cycling fan Dory Holte chases as the peloton as Liquigas-Cannondale rides at the front on the climb of Indpendence Pass during stage four of the USA Pro Challenge from Aspen to Beaver Creek on August 23, 2012 in Pitkin County, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Dory Holte
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Stage 3:

Copper Mountain to Aspen

Wednesday, Aug. 19

Approximate finish:

2:56-4:24 p.m.

Festival, 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Paepcke Park with vendors, food, drink and more

Stage 4:

Aspen to Breckenridge

Thursday, Aug. 20

Start time: 10:20 a.m.

The Pass.

Around Aspen, the Pass stands alone, with a capital P.

That’s Independence Pass, a Colorado crown jewel in the world of cycling.

Independence Pass is back on the route for the USA Pro Challenge, the Colorado cycling stage race that makes an annual stop in Aspen next week. After a one-year absence, the Pass will return with a double dose for 2015.

Independence Pass will be part of Stage 3 this year when the pro peloton starts at Copper Mountain and finishes in downtown Aspen on Wednesday, Aug. 19.

The USA Pro cyclists will climb Independence Pass from the Leadville/Twin Lakes side.

The critical and high-speed descent will take the cyclists ripping down seasonal Highway 82 for the stage finish in Aspen.

The road bikers will face the even bigger, 4,000-foot Independence Pass climb out of Aspen the next day.

Stage 4 will start in Aspen on Thursday, Aug. 20, with an opening ascent to the 12,095-foot summit of the Pass.

That’s just the warmup on Stage 4, which will finish eventually in Breckenridge.

The 2015 USA Pro Challenge will open Monday, Aug. 17, with the Steamboat Springs Circuit Race.

But iconic Independence Pass, open only in summer, will be a focus for the race teams this year, considering its rich legacy in the four-year history of the Colorado pro stage race.

The drama and mystic of the Pass emerged in 2011, the first year of the Pro Challenge. Huge, Tour de France-style enthusiastic crowds lined the Pass and its challenging switchbacks.

That first climb of Independence Pass from Twin Lakes provided spectacular television and competitive racing among all the big names in the initial tour.

Ironically, the descent trumped the climb in producing theatrics that led to George Hincapie’s stunning victory in the rain in downtown Aspen.

“That was a great day,” Hincapie said in recent interview with The Aspen Times. “I was fortunate to stay at a friend’s house (in Aspen) a week before the race. I got in some altitude training, and I got to do some recon (reconnaissance) on the climb and the downhill.”

Yes, the downhill.

As that 2011 race unfolded on the Pass with the rain falling, the race leaders had a decision to make at the summit.

Do they get full rain jackets from their crews?

Just vests?

Or no jacket?

Hincapie, with the wisdom of 17 years riding in the Tour de France, did not hesitate. He stopped for a full jacket.

So did Tejay van Garderen. And Christian Vande Velde, among others.

Leader Levi Leipheimer skipped the jacket and charged down the top cut, turned left and headed for the ghost town of Independence as the temperature fell along with the rain.

Hincapie and the jackets soon passed the noodle-armed Leipheimer, who went into full shiver mode.

Hincapie then timed his final surge, charging across the finish line and triumphantly raising his right arm in celebration – a seminal moment in Aspen cycling captured on the front page of The Aspen Times.

“It was a really special victory,” Hincapie said, adding that it turned into a pivotal moment for him late in his career. “I had no idea, prior to that, how big the cycling community was in Aspen. To see all the people cheering and enjoying the race was great.”

He said his training rides coming down the Pass helped tremendously on a race descent compounded by wet pavement.

The previews of the climb on the Leadville side, he said, helped set the stage for the eventual stage win in 2011.

And Hincapie has been coming back to Aspen ever since, in between his duties with the family business, Hincapie Sportswear, not to mention his pro cycling team and his youth development cycling team.

“I’ve come to enjoy this community. I come here as often as I can,” said Hincapie, who joined former pro teammate Lance Armstrong for a recent charity ride in Aspen to raise money for Wapiyai, a Colorado camp for families dealing with childhood cancer.

Earlier this summer, members of Hincapie’s pro cycling team and his younger development team spent time training in Aspen – including time on Independence Pass.

“You can’t really beat this place for training,” Hincapie said. “The altitude is a really big help for the boys.”

His pro cyclists will be in the peloton when the USA Pro Challenge returns to Aspen next week.

The second year of the Colorado stage race — 2012 — featured a solo breakaway and dramatic victory by Boulder’s Tom Danielson, who used his climbing on Cottonwood Pass and Independence Pass to fuel the stage win.

Danielson, riding alone, held off the charging peloton on Main Street for the victory.

Danielson, who finished second overall in the USA Pro Challenge last year, was scheduled to race in the 2015 Colorado race. But he was suspended from competition Aug. 2 right before the start of the Tour of Utah, where he was the two-time defending champion.

Danielson was suspended for an out-of-competition test that showed synthetic testosterone, according to his announcement of the suspension. He’s awaiting the results of his backup, B sample.

The next two years, 2013 and 2014, the USA Pro stage winners in Aspen prevailed in the Aspen/Snowmass Circuit Race.

Superstar Peter Sagan overpowered the field and won the 2013 race in Aspen after spending 10 days training on Independence Pass. Sagan went on to win four stages in the 2013 USA Pro Challenge, all the while crediting his high-altitude training in the Aspen area.

Last year, Boulder’s Kiel Reijnen outsprinted training partner Alex Howes to win in Aspen in the circuit race opener of the 2014 USA Pro Challenge.

Who will be the winner in downtown Aspen in 2015?

Two-time defending overall champion Tejay van Garderen of Aspen will not return, with his BMC team assignment at the Vuelta a Espana after his illness at the Tour de France.

Runner-up Danielson will not return.

Who then?

Who will survive Independence Pass this year?