Independence Pass might be out of picture for 2014 USA Pro Challenge | AspenTimes.com

Independence Pass might be out of picture for 2014 USA Pro Challenge

Aspen cycling fans might find out in 2014 if they can survive without a stage of the USA Pro Challenge cresting Independence Pass.

Pro Challenge CEO Shawn Hunter said Monday that no courses have been set and no announcements on specific routes will be released for about 90 days.

However, Hunter said it shouldn't be presumed that the Stage 2 course between Aspen and Mount Crested Butte will go over Independence Pass and Cottonwood Pass, essentially reversing a large part of the route used in 2011 and 2012 when it started in Gunnison and ended in Aspen.

An alternative would be traveling down Highway 82 from Aspen to Carbondale, turning onto Highway 133 through the Crystal Valley, tackling McClure Pass, descending into the North Fork Valley,turning onto Kebler Pass Road to Crested Butte and then attacking the sharp uphill to Mount Crested Butte.

"It's truly wide-open," Hunter said. "There's really no front-runner right now."

Race organizers must look at the miles the cyclists are logging each day and how one stage meshes with the next, Hunter said. Stage 3 will be a tough one — featuring the first mountaintop finish in the race's four-year history. That stage will start in Gunnison and end at the base of Monarch Mountain ski area, at 10,790 feet in elevation. That stage might utilize Cottonwood Pass and then later approach Monarch Mountain from the east.

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Velo News, a top cycling publication, reported on its website Monday that the McClure/Kebler route is the most likely for Stage 2, though no sources were cited.

The McClure/Kebler route would be shorter and the passes much easier to handle for oxygen-starved racers than Independence and Cottonwood passes, which both top out at more than 12,000 feet.

The route from Aspen to Mount Crested Butte via Carbondale would tally about 106 miles. McClure Pass tops out at 8,755 feet with only one relatively short, steep grade. Kebler Pass is a more gradual climb to a summit at 10,007 feet. The road has a considerable dirt section that may require paving for safety reasons.

A course over Independence Pass and Cottonwood Pass and then north on Highway 135 at Almont would come in closer to 140 miles.

A number of fans undoubtedly will be heartbroken if the race doesn't crest Independence Pass in 2014. The pass has been part of the race each of its first three years. In 2012, the racers climbed the east side of the pass in the stage from Gunnison to Aspen and then climbed the west side the next day en route to Beaver Creek. Hundreds of fans make the pilgrimage to the summit or the steep final grades to watch the racers battle fatigue, thin air, and one another.

But if the organizers choose to go through the Crystal Valley, downvalley fans won't complain, said Darren Broome, co-owner of Aloha Mountain Cyclery.

"I think Carbondale would welcome it with open arms; I really do," he said. The exposure would be a great way to draw attention to Carbondale, Redstone and the Crystal Valley, he said.

The strategy of the cyclists will be significantly different if they go over McClure and Kebler passes rather than the higher and steep Independence and Cottonwood passes, Broome said. It would be hard for any racer to grab an advantage on McClure because it's so short. Even cyclists who aren't experts in climbing probably could handle the suffering and stick with the peloton, he said.

Kebler Pass is a gentler grade without the traditional grunt of a route up a pass, he noted.

"None of these hills are pure climbers' hills," Broome said.

Hunter said decisions will be made once all alternatives are assessed and local officials are consulted. Former pro racer Kevin Livingston advises the Pro Challenge on routes.

scondon@aspentimes.com