Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO

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August 20, 2012
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USA Pro Cycling Challenge begins today in Durango

Taylor Phinney was sweating it out in Spain this time last year.

His mind was elsewhere, however.

"I was struggling in the Vuelta [a Espana]," the Boulder cyclist recalled Saturday afternoon. "It was 110 degrees every day, and I would go to bed at night and be crying watching my iPad as I was watching these guys go up Independence Pass with the huge crowds.

"I'm Colorado born and bred, but I haven't raced in Colorado in four years or so. To come back is really fabulous. I'm beyond excited."

The 22-year-old is hoping for a triumphant return. Fresh off two fourth-place finishes in the road race and time trial at the London Olympic Games, Phinney is poised to tackle his next objective: helping a deep and talented BMC Racing Team, whose roster includes Americans George Hincapie and Tejay van Garderen and 2011 Tour de France champion Cadel Evans, win the USA Pro Cycling Challenge.

The podium push begins today in downtown Durango, where 124 of the world's best, representing 24 countries, kick off the second installment of arguably the most daunting race ever contested in America. Competitors will pedal nearly 700 miles - about 150 more than in 2011 - and climb roughly 40,000 feet, much of it at unfamiliar and taxing altitudes.

"These guys are going to be punished this week," race CEO Shawn Hunter declared Saturday during an introductory news conference at Fort Lewis College's Community Concert Hall in Durango.

He jokingly added, "If you like the course, talk to me. If you don't, talk to [race director] Jim Birrell."

Acclaimed cyclists are not shying away from the race, however. Ten of last year's top 12 finishers have returned, plus six of the top 13 from July's Tour de France.

"What I'm most excited about is the growing relevance of this event. I've never seen a sporting event that has assembled this much talent in one location," Hunter said. "They're here for a reason and are not fooling around. Each of these guys is here to win. ... You could see the yellow jersey change [shoulders] every day."

Expect the host country to be well represented at the top of general-classification standings. U.S. riders captured the top five spots in last year's standings.

All five are back, headlined by defending champion Levi Leipheimer, who edged Christian Vande Velde and Tejay van Garderen by 11 and 17 seconds, respectively, to capture the yellow jersey.

Leipheimer, the 38-year-old Montana native who now rides for Belgium's Omega Pharma-QuickStep, appears to be fully recovered from the broken fibula he suffered in April after being hit by a car during a training ride in Spain.

He finished sixth in May's Tour of California and last week won the Tour of Utah's final stage.

"Any injury is difficult to come back from, but this was one of the hardest of my career," Leipheimer said. "You have no choice but to work as hard as you can to come back as fast as you can. It's hard to say how much it affected me, and which races it affected me in, but I feel good. I'm just looking forward to racing here in Colorado."

So is Boulder's Tom Danielson, who is eager to atone for a disappointing July. The 34-year-old, who finished fourth here last year and helped propel Garmin-Cervelo (now Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda) to the team title, bowed out of the Tour de France after separating his shoulder in a multi-rider crash.

"July sucked, to be honest," joked Danielson, the undisputed crowd favorite at Fort Lewis, his alma mater. "[The Tour de France] was such a miserable experience, but in bike racing we have to pick ourselves up, bandage ourselves up, figure it out and continue on. We're addicted to the challenge.

"I was laying on the ground, then flying back and thinking, 'I put in so much work from November on into this race, and now it's all over.' Then I thought about Levi. He gave it everything to get back, and I look up to him for that. ... I love this race. I love Durango; I love Boulder; I love everything in between. I'm ready to give it my all and kick some ass."

Van Garderen appears primed for another stellar performance. The 24-year-old, whom Phinney predicted will "take the world by storm pretty soon," captured the lead in last year's Queen Stage and hung on for a third-place finish. He's been gaining momentum ever since.

The 2012 season has been chock full of highlights for van Garderen. He was fourth in the Tour of California, fifth at Paris-Nice and fifth in the Tour de France, an effort that earned him the top-young-rider designation.

"July was a fun month. It went better than I could've imagined. ... But even during the whole month, I still had in the back of my mind that I wanted to be fit and ready for this race," the Boulder resident said. "This is my hometown race, and I'm excited to be here. I remember I got in the jersey in Aspen ... then Levi did an incredible job in the [Vail] time trial and took the jersey off me. It was a pretty emotional day; it was hard to lose it. I'm hoping this year I can pull it together in the final time trial and maybe take that jersey home.

"I have a lot of confidence coming out of the Tour. I showed I could be up there challenging with the best. But the thing is, a three-week tour is completely different than one week. At the Tour, I had one really bad day on the first summit finish. If that happens this week, I can't come back from that."

Vande Velde knows that feeling well. Leipheimer pulled away from him and others in the final kilometer of last year's first stage in Crested Butte.

The 36-year-old Illinois native struggled in vain to close the gap all the way to Denver.

"Levi took all the time out of me on that first day - that was game, set, match right there," the Garmin rider said. "I think it's going to be nickel-and-dimed throughout the whole thing. Like Levi said, there aren't a lot of places where you can gain time, but there are a lot of places where you can lose it. ... It all depends on when you have a bad day and when you don't."

Today's 126-mile opening stage commences in Durango and finishes in Telluride. After a 99.5-mile jaunt from Montrose to Crested Butte on Tuesday, riders will tackle another Queen Stage: 130.5 miles stretching from Gunnison to Aspen that includes ascents of the course's two highest points - Cottonwood and Independence passes.

On Thursday, the route heads back over Independence Pass, through Leadville and over the Continental Divide at Tennessee Pass and winds through Minturn before reaching Beaver Creek.

In subsequent days, competitors will speed from Breckenridge to Colorado Springs and from Golden to Boulder - a leg that features a 3.5-mile climb to the finish on Flagstaff Mountain - before concluding Sunday with a 9.5-mile time trial through downtown Denver.

"I've been looking forward to this ever since that memorable day in Denver last year," Leipheimer said. "Last year was fantastic. You could really feel that Colorado was bursting at the seams and itching for a race of this caliber for 20, 23 years since the Coors Classic, and they came out with all that enthusiasm. It was amazing to be a part of."

Hunter expects this week to be just as compelling and fruitful.

"We had a great moment of truth in 2011: Over 1 million people came out over seven days, and the race was seen live in 161 countries," he said. "We saw that the economic impact for the state of Colorado was almost $100 million. It was so exciting. I'm here to tell you it's going to get a whole lot better starting Monday."

jmaletz@aspentimes.com


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The Post Independent Updated Aug 20, 2012 02:00AM Published Aug 20, 2012 01:59AM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.