Racer says Independence Pass will punish world’s top cyclists
August 3, 2011
ASPEN – Colorado-based men’s pro cycling racer Tom Danielson guaranteed Tuesday that there will be some suffering Aug. 24 when the USA Pro Cycling Challenge tackles Independence Pass on a grueling stage.
Danielson said during a teleconference Tuesday that he scouted the route last weekend and “got light-headed” as he topped Independence Pass from the east. The climb was tough, he said, even though he is in the best shape of the season, coming off a ninth-place finish at the Tour de France.
Danielson said the Colorado mountains will pose an interesting challenge for the international lineup of racers, which includes Tour de France winner Cadel Evans and brothers Andy and Frank Schleck, who finished the Tour second and third, respectively.
“I think altitude is really going to play a big part in this race,” he said.
The race will bring the sport’s best riders back to Colorado for the first time since 1988, when the Coors International Bicycle Classic took place in the state. It’s a seven-day, 518-mile stage race that starts with a prologue in Colorado Springs, heads into the mountains, then finishes in Golden and Denver. The event will take place Aug. 22-28.
The race is billing the second stage on Wednesday, Aug. 24, as the Queen Stage because it climbs 9,746 vertical feet over 131 miles between the start in Gunnison and finish in Aspen. Racers must gut it out over Cottonwood Pass, at 12,126 feet in elevation, and Independence Pass, at 12,095.
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The passes aren’t as steep as those the pro racers encounter in the tours in Europe, Danielson said, but they require a long distance of climbing at a high altitude. Because of the way the course is set up, Independence Pass will present a special challenge. The racers will have covered roughly 70 miles when they reach Buena Vista and start gaining elevation as they make their way to Twin Lakes, then start the ascent up the east side of Independence Pass.
“The last 4 miles of it was very, very difficult,” said Danielson, who took a reconnaissance ride last weekend. Riders are exposed to elements, often including a headwind, he said, and if there happens to be a tailwind, they won’t benefit much on the last 4 miles because of the pitch.
“You stand up and get out of the saddle, and every muscle is sore,” Danielson said.
He said he hopes Independence Pass splinters the peloton. He acknowledged that he was wondering during his training ride if a rider could attack on Independence Pass and get over the top before other riders regroup. He concluded that riders who get dropped won’t recover easily since the elevation will make it tough for them to pick up the pace.
After reaching the summit, riders have 20 miles of fast, potentially dangerous descent into Aspen.
“Riders may be coming in one by one, that’s what I would hope,” Danielson said.
Christian Vande Velde – another top American rider, teammate of Danielson’s and participant in Tuesday’s teleconference – said Tour de France riders were talking about the Colorado race with relish. Racers such as the Schlecks are intrigued by the “infamous climbs” of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, he said.
Vande Velde said one of the great qualities of cycling is that it gives spectators unmatched access to professional athletes. The crowd will be just feet away from racers as they struggle to reach the top of high mountain passes, he noted.
Vande Velde, like Danielson, believes the mountain climbs will scatter the racers, but he thinks there will be regrouping on the descents. He expects five to 10 racers to be grouped together in cumulative time after the mountain stages from Salida to Crested Butte and from Gunnison to Aspen.
The individual time trial on Vail Pass could determine the overall winner of the inaugural Pro Cycling Challenge, Vande Velde said.
Danielson, 33, competes for the American-based Team Garmin-Cervelo, which won the team title in the Tour de France. He raced in his first Tour de France this year. He is a seasoned Colorado racer, having lived and trained in both Durango and Boulder. Some race observers are mentioning him as a favorite to win the Pro Cycling Challenge.
Danielson isn’t giving himself the crown: “I don’t know physiologically how I’m going to feel for this race,” he said. But he acknowledged that he has been looking forward to it since he heard Colorado would again host a professional men’s race.
“Immediately the hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up,” he said. “I was so excited.”