Rosters out for USA Pro Cycling Challenge | AspenTimes.com

Rosters out for USA Pro Cycling Challenge

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – Shawn Hunter is committed to making the USA Pro Cycling Challenge one of the world’s five most important races each year.

Judging by the athletes who have committed to competing later this month in arguably the toughest race ever staged on American soil, Hunter, the event’s CEO, and his team are moving in the right direction.

The Challenge unveiled its provisional rosters on Wednesday for the 2012 race, which kicks off Aug. 20 in Durango, rolls through Aspen in Stages 3 and 4 on Aug. 22 and 23 and concludes with an Aug. 26 time trial through the streets of downtown Denver. The group, composed of 124 riders from 24 countries, represents some of the world and the country’s pre-eminent talents.

“It’s one of the best fields of any race in the world and one of the top two or three fields of any race in America,” Hunter said Wednesday afternoon. “I think that’s a tribute to Colorado. The crowds and the support, that’s what the riders want. They want to come and be a part of something special, and we have that in our communities and in a challenging course.”

Six of the top 13 finishers from July’s Tour de France and 10 of the top 12 finishers in last year’s Challenge – including all of the top five – are slated to take part in a race that will be 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 above 10,000 feet.

American Levi Leipheimer will be back to defend his 2011 crown, this time competing for Belgian team Omega Pharma-Quickstep. So, too, will Australian Cadel Evans, 2011’s Tour de France winner, and Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck, who was forced to withdraw from last month’s Tour after fracturing his pelvis.

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Britain’s Bradley Wiggins – who last week followed up a resounding Tour win with time-trial Olympic gold on his home soil – and his Team Sky cohorts will not be making the trip.

“We gave them a formal invitation, but they were unable to attend. Their sole focus coming out of the Tour de France was winning a gold for Wiggins, and it’s a credit to them that they did it,” Hunter said. “They didn’t think they could put all of their energies into the Olympics and also our race, and we respect that. We hope to see them in Colorado soon.

“This year, we invited 16 teams – about half the field is international, and half is domestic. What we do is maintain relationships year-round with team owners, directors and riders. We keep them in the loop about all the facts related to the Colorado race, and we get their input. At the end of the day, we want them to circle this race and want to come and win, whether it’s their team or as individual riders.”

Christian Vande Velde and Tom Danielson, who last year propelled Garmin-Cervelo – now Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda – to a Challenge win with second- and third-place finishes, respectively, and Leipheimer headline an American contingent looking to duplicate its efforts in 2011, when it captured the top five spots in the final individual standings.

Fresh off fourth-place finishes in both the time trial and the road race in London, Boulder’s Taylor Phinney is slated to make his Challenge debut riding for the BMC Racing Team.

“I’m beyond excited for that,” the 22-year-old told The Denver Post in April. “In scalding-hot Spain, (I was) just getting my butt kicked last year during the tour of Colorado, and this year I’m putting my Grand Tour dues in early with the Giro (d’Italia). … Having a year under my belt has been crucial. Last year I was like a little kid trying to find his way, and just with one year, you feel more comfortable in a bunch. Just the confidence level is higher.”

Fellow BMC rider Tejay Van Garderen, of Washington, also is riding high following a breakout performance in France, where he finished fifth and claimed the Maillot Blanc, awarded to the Tour’s top young rider.

The 23-year-old, married to Aspen cyclist Jessica Phillips Van Garderen, took third after an impressive performance in the Colorado high country last summer.

“We have such an all-star cast of Americans and really the best of the Europeans, as well,” Hunter said. “Taylor, Tejay, Tom – those are the rising stars of this sport. The good news is it’s not just one rider; it’s a handful that you know are going to carry the torch for a long time in the sport of cycling in America. The next generation might be the most fun to watch that we’ve ever had.”

While the country’s new guard will be on display in a few weeks, one of the its most accomplished and revered riders will be preparing to step away. George Hincapie, a 39-year-old New York native who prevailed in a thrilling sprint to the finish line in front of the Pitkin County Courthouse in Aspen in the vaunted Queen Stage in August 2011, will be retiring after this Challenge.

“We’re honored that he’s going to race here in his last competition,” Hunter said. “He’s a true gentleman and one of the great ambassadors of this sport. We’re hoping to send him off in style.”

jmaletz@aspentimes.com