Welcome back for another dose of thin air and constant climbing, wide highways and fans dressed as Borat. It's round 2 of the American summer stage race scene!
For our non-North American friends, let me do a brief comparison of why the USAPCC is not just a rerun of the Larry Miller Tour of Utah. Here are the main points:
- Colorado is further north, therefore it's colder. No wait, east. Actually the real issue is altitude. The Rocky Mountain crest is also known as the Continental Divide, the upsurge of land that separates water flowing to the Atlantic from water flowing to the Pacific. It's America's ceiling (lower 48 version anyway), and the peaks are higher than in Utah. Not all of them, and not all the passes. But the valley floor in Breckenridge, where two stages end, is 9600 feet (2926 meters). The floor. That's really the main point -- that all of the race is at high altitude, bottoming out today in Steamboat Springs (6600 feet) and Sunday in Denver (5200').
- The ski resorts dominate the race viewing experience. Utah has some of the greatest skiing in the world, but it's confined to a relatively small area around where the last two stages were, whereas Colorado's ski industry dominates at least half the state. All of these stages save for the final two are using ski areas as staging. As we go along I'll weigh in on their relative quality, for those of you looking for some expensive cross-training this winter.
- Religion! Utah's cultural history is centered largely around Mormonism, both the faith and the history. I'm not very religious and can't speak much to the dogma, but the history around the Mormons is as colorful as it gets in the American west. Colorado's history has more to do with mining than Jesus. And nobody likes a good mining story, really. Thankfully, German immigration in the mid-19th century brought us the religion of skiing.
OK, that's enough for now. Let's dive into the race itself.
What's It About?
High altitude, climby good times, except over the weekend when things calm down. [Score one for originality there, if not suspense.] The beatings start early and continue all week, and if there are any serious sprinters in attendance, you have to question what terrible thing they did to their team director to deserve being put on the start list. Anyway, the USAPCC is vying for the title of "hardest American race" with Utah (ATOC is much more of a coastal vibe), and the "mine's bigger" contest only seems to go in one direction. Up.
Everything. Utah has a few stages it likes to recycle, for good reason, but the USAPCC seems to tear up the blueprint as often as not. Part of it is that Colorado is a big state, and its usable ski areas (meaning nice roads and hotels) are spread out everywhere. Twice they've started out in the southwestern part of the state, and they've concentrated a lot on the central Rockies between Aspen and Breckenridge. This time they start further north in Steamboat Springs, spend a lot more time in Summit County, and do two stages on the front range.
Independence Pass (12,095 feet) is back and will heavily influence one stage, and two more stages (3 and 6) return from past editions. But the finish of stage 2 at Arapahoe Basin is a major new wrinkle and the Breckenridge time trial should be a fun addition as well.
Almost everything. We will be doing stage profiles every day in the live thread but I'll lay out a few of them here. Stage 1, the Steamboat Circuit, is nasty, brutish and short. Lots of sharp climbs but mellow later on. Pretty wide open. Stages 2 and 3 should be the key climbing stages. Stage 5 is the time trial, which has some ascents as well, because of course it does. Recovery will be hard. Temperatures will be cool most of the week, which should keep the action a bit livelier than a boiling hot slugfest over one 10,000 foot mountain after another.
Where's the Race Gonna Be Made?
Stage 2 should begin the sorting.
As usual with these American races, it's not easy to find gradient data, but the climb to A-Basin is a bit switch-backy and I calculate as roughly 8% over those last 10km. As these things go, that's one of the tougher ascents. Not one of the highest but still pretty high. It also comes after the long slog up over Rabbit Ears Pass (which isn't very steep) to the upper elevations, plus Ute Pass, just to make sure your ass is thoroughly kicked heading into the MTF. About the only reason not to think of this as the key stage is that it's only Tuesday of a race that lasts til Sunday.
As for the skiing, Arapahoe Basin is on the list of American ski areas not to be missed. I haven't been there in 20 years, but put in several long days there and can verify that it's like nothing else. Incredibly high up, generally overlooked by poseurs, hard from top to bottom (which probably accounts for the previous point), and ... it was formerly very down-home. That may have changed. They might have real lifts now. Anyway, my guess is that Europeans would feel more at home here than anyplace else, in the wide-open spaces along the East Wall.
[Oh, and since we glossed over stage 1, I'll add that Steamboat Springs is a fun place to ski. More of a family friendly (re: not grossly expensive) place than the others, and it gets fantastic snow, which is not a given all over the state.]
Stage 3 runs out to Aspen, as every USAPCC must, in search of
money climbing. And they find it.
The Independence Pass climb is one of the main features of the race. It looks like this closer up:
This profile comes from Summit Biking, which has a description as well. In the last 6.4km it climbs roughly 420 meters, making it an average of 6.5%. This is your classic American west road gradient, not terribly steep but the length and altitude will wear out all but the top climbers. The nosedive down to Aspen will be fast as hell, making this a really fun stage. In 2011 and 2012 the race rolled out of Gunnison and went over Independence Pass to Aspen, with stages won by George Hincapie and Tom Danielson. So while this could be a cool stage, I dunno if it'll sort things out all that much.
Skiing? Aspen, which has the nickname Ajax, is an OK mountain and drops you right down into the village, which at one point in history was probably a really cool experience, but is now primarily a branding experience. Aspen Highlands is just up the road, and a much more challenging, beautiful mountain, and though it's part of Aspen Ski Corp now it's still billed as a more laid-back (re: less ostentatious) experience. Snowmass is the third jewel in the crown, and it's huge but not as interesting.
The time trial on Stage 5 takes place in and around Breckenridge, home to the stage 4 finish of what's something of a recurring Aspen-Breck stage. I don't expect much of a GC sorting that day, but there are climbs and you never know. Instead it'll be time trial that really matters.
The route goes out and back on the flat highway that connects Breckenridge to the rest of Summit County, but when it comes back into town things get interesting. I used to live in Breckenridge in another lifetime, and my recollection of those roads around town is that they're winding little residential areas, not built to any particular standard. I definitely remember them being difficult to walk around while drunk. Hopefully the cyclists will be neither walking nor drunk. It's only 480 vertical feet to the top of the Boreas Pass neighborhood, but that's enough to take this race out of the hands of the non-climbers.
Breckenridge is a fine place to ski. It doesn't get as much snow as Vail, which is nearby as the crow flies, and it'll never be as cool as A-Basin, but it's big and 30 years ago there were plenty of cool little nooks to get lost in all day. It blows away Copper and Keystone, no matter what anyone tries to tell you. It's also a living village, more than just a resort. So there you go.
Who to Watch For
Hm, here's where it gets tough. Not a lot of big names from Europe. Lachlan Morton and Matt Bussche are the top returning names from the past, with two fifth-place finishes between them. Janier Acevedo could be Cannondale-Garmin's man, and Brent Bookwalter was just third in Utah, which bodes well. Julian Arredondo did the Tour but could rebound in time to do well; at least as a Colombian he can't be hating the thin air. After that? You have a jet-lagged Roman Kreuziger, plus Rohan Dennis and Damiano Caruso for BMC, struggling to adjust to the altitude according to their chat with Velo News. Then a gaggle of domestic pros, hungry for the win, like Phil Gaimon or Kiel Reijnen.
My Pick To Win
I'll take a wild guess and say Arredondo. That's about all anyone can claim to be doing right now.