Field position key to Aspen/Snowmass stage of USA Pro Challenge

Dale Strode
The Aspen Times
Stage winner Andre Greipel of Germany, right in blue, Peter Sagan of Slovakia, wearing the best sprinter's green jersey, left, and Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway, second right, sprint towards the finish line to win the 13th stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 217 kilometers (134.8 miles) with start in Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux and finish in Le Cap D'Agde, France, Saturday July 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Laurent Rebours)

Hello, Aspen.

And hello, USA Pro Challenge.

The scouts for the cycling teams in the USA Pro Challenge are already spinning around Aspen, Snowmass Village and all points in between. And a handful of pro cyclists have joined the advance teams as they prepare for the upcoming opening stages of the USA Pro Challenge, circa 2013.

In addition to training rides, the cyclists and their support crews are pre-riding the courses for stages 1 and 2 of the USA Pro Challenge, scheduled to start Monday, Aug. 19, with the Aspen/Snowmass Circuit Race.

“That shows that they are serious about this race,” said cycling coach, former pro racer and former Olympian Jame Carney, a part-time Aspen resident who helped develop the circuit course for the unique opening stage of the third annual USA Pro Challenge.

And one of the early arrivals could change the complexion of the opening circuit stage as well as the entire seven-stage, 599-mile race.

“With Peter Sagan here early, training, he’s serious about the race, “ Carney said. “He’ll win this (stage).”

A two-time U.S. Olympian who finished fifth as the top American in the 40-kilometer points race in Sydney, Australia, in 2000, Carney said the technical Aspen/Snowmass Circuit Race course, with punchy climbs and critical positioning requirements, normally would open the possibilities for any number of cyclists to win.

New gun in town

That still may be the case, he said.

But the outgoing Sagan, the Slovakian national road racing champion and a budding star internationally, could change everything with his ability to climb as well as sprint.

“It’s going to be a tough-guy sprinter to win this stage, that’s who it will be,” Carney said, acknowledging Sagan as the premier tough-guy sprinter in the 128-rider field for the 2013 race across Colorado.

“The course has changed, as you know. The Tiehack bridge isn’t part of the course anymore,” Carney said. “That changes things significantly.”

Carney said the teams will have the scramble to position their sprinters up near the front of the peloton when the cyclists leave downtown Aspen and head out on Highway 82 for the left turn at Owl Creek Road.

“What I think the fans are going to see is teams really trying to position their sprinters before the climb up Owl Creek,” Carney said.

The teams will want their sprinters close to the front because the profile of the stage indicates a probable field-sprint finish to the three-lap, 60-mile circuit race. If the sprinters can’t maintain contact with the field on the climbs, they won’t be in position to sprint for the Stage 1 victory.

Parade laps downtown

The cyclists will make two non-timed parade laps in downtown Aspen to start the circuit at 1:05 p.m. Monday, Aug. 19.

They will exit Aspen via Highway 82

“There will be trains of teams trying to position their sprinters near the front so they don’t lose contact going over Owl Creek,” said Carney, who raced internationally for more than a decade before turning to coaching.

“The sprinters … will ‘sag climb’ up Owl Creek,” Carney said, adding that the climbers in the field will push the early pace because the first King of the Mountain points line will be located at the crest of Owl Creek.

“That means the climbers are going to be riding harder and faster for the KOM points,” Carney said, “forcing the sprinters to work harder to stay in contact.”

The sprinters, meanwhile, will look at the Aspen/Snowmass loop as an opportunity to win the stage.

“Every sprinter is going to say that if I can survive this event, if I can get up a couple kickers, if I can be tough and smart, I can be there at the end,” Carney said.

The course designer said climbers adept at short, punchy uphills will excel on the Aspen/Snowmass course.

“These are not long climbs. They are steep, deal-with-it climbs,” Carney said.

The first ascent up Owl Creek also will reveal how critical positioning is for the circuit course, he said.

“When they start descending Owl Creek at over 50 mph, then they will take a left at Two Creeks,” Carney said. “When they do that, the cars in the caravan cannot make that curve as fast as the cyclists.”

From there, the cyclists will ride to Brush Creek Road for a fast downhill to a key intersection on the course — Medicine Bow.

“The cars cannot go through the Medicine Bow corner as fast as the cyclists either,” Carney said. “Same situation.

“If you are stuck back in the caravan, now you can’t really move up … until you get to McLain Flats,” he said. “And there, you’re not that far from the finish.”

Three laps

Remember, the cyclists will make three laps on the 20-mile circuit.

“The circuit race is going to be challenging for the pros, very challenging,” said USA Pro Challenge CEO and founder Shawn Hunter.

The loop will head down Brush Creek Road, up Medicine Bow Road, down Upper Ranch Road and across Highway 82, down to the Roaring Fork River and back up the hill to the W/J Ranch before following McLain Flats Road back to Aspen.

A climb up Cemetery Lane will take the riders to the West End, via the technical down-and-up of Power Plant Road.

Then, they wind through the West End, racing down Smuggler, before hitting the start/finish on Main.

“The Monday circuit race is going to be one of the most fan-friendly days of the event,” Hunter said. “To be able to see these cyclists, the best riders in the world, three times, four times … in race conditions. That will be a real treat.”

Carney agreed.

Places to watch

“The incredible thing is there are so many great places to watch this race,” Carney said. “You can watch them downtown. You can watch them coming down Smuggler (Avenue),” he said of the West End street near the end of the 20-mile circuit lap. “That could be spectacular (because of their speed).

“The Medicine Bow area will be an amazing place to watch. To see them come down Brush Creek at a high rate of speed and make a very technical turn, that will be amazing,” Carney said, adding that the Power Plant area of Aspen will be interesting viewing, as well.

“With all the bike paths along the course, you should be able to get to some great places to watch,” Carney said.

He said the positioning in the peloton will remain critical as they scream down Upper Ranch Road and whip across Highway 82 at a high rate of speed.

“They might get air (off the lip of Highway 82),” Carney said. “But a team chase is not going to bring anything back between Medicine Bow and the W/J.”

The second KOM line will be at the top of the W/J hill.

The climb up Cemetery Lane and Power Plant Road will lead the cyclists to the technical turns through the West End as well as the tight turn back onto Main for the final sprint to the line, said Carney, who last year won his 22nd national championship (elite track).

Carney also serves on the board of directors of USA Cycling. And he’s on the U.S. Olympic Committee Athlete Advisory Council.

“One of the places I noticed the other day that might be a great place to watch would be the Rio Grande Trail, above Woody Creek, where you can see them go down and come back up,” Carney said.

The cyclists, meanwhile, will be battling to stay up front.

“You’ve got to have position,” he said.

The main racing fireworks should start on the third and final lap. And the final quick turns downtown could set up a final sprint.

And a possible photo finish?

“There will be trains of riders trying to get to Bleeker first. That’s where the race could be won: Get my guy from Bleeker to Mill first.

Then, it’s a short sprint to the finish after turning from Mill onto Main.

“It’s only 250 meters out of the final corner to the finish line,” Carney said.”That means you want to be first, second or third around Bleeker.”