The “dream team.” The high-altitude time trial. And, most importantly, the re-integration of women’s competition for the first time in 27 years. This year’s USA Pro Challenge, taking place August 17 to 23, is going to be one for the record books, and you’ll want to know what’s going on by the time the peloton rockets through downtown Denver on Sunday. But first, let’s see what’s new for this year:
The women: When the Coors Classic was discontinued in 1988, women’s participation in the premier cycling competition went with it. However, in the fifth incarnation of the USA Pro Challenge, the women are back, and the quality of the field shows that they’re here to stay. The three-stage competition features two-time Olympic champion Kristin Armstrong, two-time Giro Rosa champion and Boulder resident Mara Abbott, and world-class teams like Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies and UnitedHealthcare.
The Breckenridge individual time trial: The leaders have nowhere to hide in this solo effort, and it’s not uncommon to see the yellow jersey change hands when the day is done. The 8.5-mile stage moved from Vail to Breckenridge this year, and the race will likely be won or lost on a hair-raising descent down Boreas Pass.
The dream team: The 1992 USA men’s Olympic basketball team would be hard-pressed to rival the talent on pro cycling team Tinkoff-Saxo. Start with Alberto Contador, the two-time Tour de France winner with a dynamo-like cadence in the mountains. Throw in Peter Sagan, the Tour’s best sprinter for the past four years, and Roman Kreuziger, a talented all-rounder, and you’ve got a squad with serious power to burn.
Who ya got?
Women’s general classification
The favorite: Kristin Armstrong. In the three-stage race, the individual time trial gives Armstrong a huge advantage to specialize over her competitors. If she can hang on in the mountains, expect to see her in yellow.
The challenger: Mara Abbott. The two-time Giro Rosa champion has shown that she’s a well-rounded competitor. If she can keep Armstrong close in the individual time trial, it could come down to the wire in downtown Denver.
The wildcard: Hannah Barnes. The UnitedHealthcare rider is coming off a race win, two stage wins, and a young rider award, all in 2015. Look for the 22-year-old to continue the streak this weekend.
Women’s team classification
The favorite: Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies. With Jasmin Glaesser coming off a win at the Pan American Games, plus AMGEN Tour of California stage wins from Alison Tetrick and Leah Kirchmann, the Optum team is primed to cement another victory in an already impressive year.
The challenger: UnitedHealthcare. Look for this team to be nipping on the heels of Optum with 12 stage wins to boast in 2015. Contributions from Katie Hall, Hannah Barnes, and Coryn Rivera mean that they have talent to burn, they’ll just have to get the rest of their rides across quick enough to take home the title.
The wildcard: Team TIBCO-SVB. These women may only have five stage wins this year, but four of those come from all-rounder Lauren Stephens alone. The other teams will be looking to stop her momentum, and that’s exactly what makes TIBCO so dangerous.
Men’s general classification
The favorite: Alberto Contador. The Spaniard was stripped of his 2010 Tour de France title for doping and banned from the sport for two years, but he’s been on fire since his 2012 return to Tinkoff-Saxo. Contador won the Giro d’Italia this May by utterly dismantling Italian rider Fabio Aru on a particularly brutal 16th-stage climb, and that’s why we’ve got him for the win in the Rockies.
The challenger: Dan Martin. The Cannondale-Garmin rider will part ways with the team at the end of this season, but the Irishman who’s ranked 12th in the world and specializes in climbing will be looking to bring home one last trophy for longtime manager Jonathan Vaughters.
The wildcard: Rohan Dennis. The Australian rider finished 65th in this year’s Tour de France, but not without taking home a stage win on the very first day. Look for his time-trialing abilities to shine during the hairy descent in Breckenridge.
Men’s team classification
The favorite: Tinkoff-Saxo. With the precision of a Swiss watch (and the funding of a Swiss bank), the Saxo boys could walk away with this one. With Contador leading the way through the mountains and Sagan picking up precious points in the sprints, it’s shaping up to be this team’s Challenge to lose.
The challenger: BMC Racing. This team is actually ranked ahead of Tinkoff-Saxo, according to the UCI, but lost points with the commentators for failing to enter reigning Pro Challenge champion Tejay van Garderen. Still, veteran leadership from 2011 Tour de France champion Cadel Evans means that the BMC boys will be poised and ready if Tinkoff-Saxo slip up.
The wildcard: Cannondale-Garmen. Jonathan Vaughters is one of the most decorated managers in the business, and always seems to have his squad ready on race day. Climbing and time trial specialist Tom Danielson was voted “most aggressive” in the 2012 Challenge, so watch for him to lead the breakaways that could overthrow Saxo and BMC.