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In Thin Air: Welcome to Colorado

The USA Pro Cycling Challenge starts on Monday and provides a week's worth of high-altitude racing with some of the most stunning scenery around. Here's the lowdown.

Jeff Gross

Imagine yourself climbing a mountain, gradient relentless even if not absurdly steep like the fabled climbs in the Italian Dolomites. The pavement gives way to dirt, your rear wheel occasionally slipping slightly as it careens over small pebbles in the road. There is an ache in your lungs and legs as you try to take in the majestic peaks around you but fail to truly appreciate them, attention in part diverted towards maintaining forward momentum and not losing the wheel in front of you. We have put ourselves in this position many a time in our heads, and sometimes even in person. The mountains are devastatingly beautiful and cruel and we love them.

Now try with 30% less oxygen than you are used to.

Welcome to Colorado, where the USA Pro Cycling Challenge begins on Monday. The third major American stage race of the year helps to serve as a bridge between the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España for race-hungry fans. The racing stretches over seven days and offers up a bevy of varied high altitude stages for a stacked field of domestic and international teams.

America is beginning to develop its own distinctive style of stage races and each of the three bigs - California, Utah, and Colorado - are designed to showcase the beauty of a single state. And in the case of these three states, that means mountains, baby! In California, they are hard to avoid, even if you stay close to the coast. In Utah, much is the same, with avoiding the mountains being tantamount to running a second Tour of Qatar through the state's deserted flatlands. And in Colorado, not using the mountains would just be a sin. But these are not quite the stage races you would expect for so much time spent in the mountains. American engineers like to make their highways wide and gentle, a far cry from the narrow, steep, and varied pitches in the Pyrenees and Dolomites some eight time zones to the east. There are fewer spectacular implosions along the route and racing on the general classification is condensed into short bursts of violence. The rest of the days? Well, they are plenty hard, but usually offer the chance for a bunch sprint, albeit one with substantially more tired legs than sprinters may be used to.

The Party

The Pro Cycling Challenge's Stage 1 seems the one of the easier ones on paper with a mere 7,780 feet of climbing on the 68.2 mile route. Wait, did I say easy when the stage climbs more than 1,000 feet for every 10 miles of racing, with a starting altitude of 7,900 feet? Once again, welcome to Colorado... The stage runs three laps of a circuit starting in Aspen and looping through Snowmass Village before running back into town over two short, steep climbs. Expect a bunch sprint, people. Stage 2 brings the difficulty up a few notches with a climb over the infamous Independence Pass early in the race, a dirt road climb that summits at over 12,000 feet - the highest elevation in any professional cycling race according to the race website. If you were wondering, that's about 3,200 feet higher than the Col du Galibier summit (and do you remember how gassed riders look going over that? Yikes!). At the tail end of the stage, riders will go over the only slightly lower Hoosier Pass before descending towards Breckenridge before hitting the nasty 15% gradient on Moonstone road a few kilometers from the finish.

Stage 3 is one for the sprinters, despite the climb of Rabbit's Ear Pass near the finale of the stage and almost 6,000 feet of total elevation gain over the day. There are 20 miles of wide open downhill to the line, so good luck holding off a chasing pack, attacking riders. The next day sees some meaningful GC action for the first time with a short, sharp uphill finish in Beaver Creek that comes immediately after the steep climb of Bachelor Gulch with gradients up to 18% and the technical descent down the other side. Stage 5 is a 10 mile time trial beginning, of which the first half is relatively flat while the second half climbs at about a 3.5% average gradient. Oh, and the time trial starts at an elevation almost equal to that of the Galibier summit. Are you seeing a trend here?

The remainder of the race should be one for the fast men with a flat 72 mile circuit race in Denver on Stage 7 preceded by a lumpy Stage 6 that, despite its 11,800 feet of climbing should end in a bunch sprint. There are some steep rollers in the final 20 miles, but any GC shakeup would take the favor of the cycling gods and an orchestrated team effort that could very well come to naught or even end poorly.

The Party Goers

The Pro Cycling Challenge (please. Can we just change it to Tour of Colorado already?) draws an interesting mix of racers, some coming off the Tour de France with questionable form and freshness still left in their legs, some building for the World Tour races in Quebec and Montreal in early September. This year provides a cast that leaves one guessing as to how exactly the race will play out. Chris Froome, winner of the Tour de France in dominant fashion, is here, but with what form and motivation? He will be building towards the World Championships road race and time trial in Firenze, Italy, but he is likely to be coming off some well-needed rest. Can his class shine through, or is he here for training and maybe even to help the young Joe Dombroski take a win or podium placing in his home country? What of those with disappointing Tour de France rides like Tejay van Garderen, who has been second here in the past and had a month sans in July? Of the Tour de France riders, I actually put my money on Andy Schleck to come out swinging the hardest. He came into the Tour de France still building form after an injury that sidelined him for much of 2012 and is the most likely to have improved significantly since. There will be no shortage of fight from other teams, though, most notably Garmin-Sharp. Christian Vande Velde won last year and is returning alongside recent Tour of Utah winner Tom Danielson.

On the stage hunter front, it will be hard to keep Peter Sagan from winning up to four stages in his first trip to Colorado. He has been training at altitude for the past several weeks here and has his sights set on tuning form for the upcoming Canadian World Tour races. The biggest challenges he will face will come from BMC's Greg Van Avermaet and United Healthcare's Kiel Reijnen, neither of which are pure sprinters but have among the strongest kicks at the end of a hard day.

So, are you ready? Grab your oxygen masks and let's do this!