Challenge announces teams for 2012 race | AspenTimes.com

Challenge announces teams for 2012 race

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Renowned American cyclist Levi Leipheimer and reigning Tour de France champion Cadel Evans have confirmed that they will return to Colorado next month to find out if they are up to the Challenge.

The locals’ favorite will be conspicuously absent, however, when the USA Pro Cycling Challenge rolls through Aspen on Aug. 23 and 24.

Woody Creek’s Alex Hagman, who last summer fared well in arguably the toughest stage race ever contested on American soil, will not get the chance to race in front of family and friends – an experience he called “a dream come true” last year. His team, Jelly Belly p/b Kenda, was not among the 16 squads selected Wednesday to participate in the event’s second installment, which begins in Durango on Aug. 20 and concludes with a time trial in downtown Denver on Aug. 26.

“There’s obviously real disappointment, but I think you should get a reaction from Alex,” Kay Hagman said Wednesday. Her son currently is competing in the 13-stage Tour of Qinghai Lake in China and was not available for comment.

Alex Hagman, who now lives in Fort Collins, pedaled to a 31st-place finish in last year’s Challenge. The 28-year-old wound up two spots ahead of 2010 Tour de France winner Andy Schleck, of Luxembourg, and just 6 minutes, 16 seconds behind winner Leipheimer.

Just one other teammate finished in the top 90, however, for a Jelly Belly contingent that did not crack the top 15 in the final standings.

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This year’s field will feature six new teams – Astana, Champion System, RusVelo, Bontrager Livestrong, Optum and Leipheimer’s new Omega Pharma-QuickStep squad – and four of last year’s top five finishers.

“After the 2011 USA Pro Challenge, we had such an overwhelmingly positive response from the teams that it was difficult to narrow it down to 16 teams for the 2012 edition,” Shawn Hunter, the race’s CEO, said in a statement. “The USA Pro Challenge is building a reputation for having the highest-caliber teams in the world, creating fierce competition in the Colorado Rockies. I can’t wait to see what these teams have in store for us this August.”

U.S.-based Garmin-Cervelo, now Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda, won the 2011 Challenge thanks in large part to the efforts of Christian Vande Velde and Boulder resident Tom Danielson, who wound up second and fourth, respectively.

American riders captured the top five spots in last year’s final individual standings – among them George Hincapie, who won the vaunted Queen Stage en route to a fifth-place finish. The 39-year-old recently announced that this Challenge will be his last professional race.

Squads will not finalize and publicize their Challenge rosters until after the Tour de France. While Leipheimer, Evans and Hincapie have announced their intentions, it remains to be seen what other top riders will take part.

Danielson’s status is uncertain. The 34-year-old bowed out of the Tour de France on Friday after he was involved in a crash that ensnared many, including Canadian teammate Ryder Hesjedal. Danielson, who was nursing a separated shoulder he suffered in an earlier spill, was briefly knocked unconscious and later was rushed to the hospital for hip, collarbone and elbow injuries, according to The Associated Press.

Hesjedal, the Giro D’Italia champion, also was forced to withdraw because of hip and knee injuries. He is expected to be ready for the Olympics, his coach told the AP on Wednesday.

Those who do compete in Colorado will confront a race that is even more daunting in 2012: The course now stretches 680 miles – about 150 longer than in 2011 – features three uphill stage finishes and more mountain passes, including five that top out at more than 10,000 feet.

Four new host cities – Durango, Telluride, Montrose and Boulder – will join the mix. Aspen, meanwhile, has the distinction of being the only place to host both a stage finish and start.

Aug. 22’s third, or Queen, stage will stretch more than 130 miles from Gunnison to downtown Aspen and includes ascents of two 12,000-plus-foot passes – Cottonwood and Independence. The next day, competitors will charge back up Independence Pass, pedal toward Leadville, cross the Continental Divide via 10,424-foot Tennessee Pass, descend into Minturn and make their way to the Beaver Creek ski area.

Evans, seventh last year, is looking forward to his return.

“After winning the Tour de France last year and seeing the enthusiasm of the fans, I didn’t think anything could match it, but then I came to Colorado,” he said. “Seeing the huge crowds that were along the route supporting us at the USA Pro Challenge was remarkable and really motivated us to do our best.

“The course and the mountains were beautiful but incredibly challenging, and I can’t wait to take them on again. I knew last August that I wanted to return to the race in 2012.”

jmaletz@aspentimes.com