It’s Summit’s year to shine on the pro cycling circuit.
Officials with the 2015 USA Pro Challengeyesterday announced routes for the fifth year of the international cycle race, Colorado’s largest professional sporting event and easily one of the world’s most demanding road races due to four mountain passes above 9,300 feet. That’s a good 100 feet higher than the nastiest summit in Tour de France history.
And Summit County is largely to thank for this year’s lung-burning altitudes. Towns and resorts across the county play host to four of seven Pro Challenge stages this August, including the first-ever finish along the vaunted Loveland Pass route and a brand-new starting line at Copper Mountain.
Cyclists from top-tier teams like BMC Racing and Cannondale-Garmin Pro Cycling will cover nearly 560 total miles during the race. Before dropping to the relative low of Loveland (4,982 feet) for the start of Stage 6, competitors tackle Rabbit Ears Pass, Hoosier Pass, Fremont Pass and Independence Pass. And they won’t just huff over Independence once — they’ll hit the heart of the Copper Triangle twice, first during Stage 3, then again for Stage 4.
“The distance, the elevation climbs, everything foster the best in competition,” Pro Challenge Chief Executive Officer Shawn Hunter said. “They aren’t too long — they’re short enough that the racing takes place from start to finish each day. The athletes race hard from the first minute after the start to the moment the first racer crosses the finish line.”
STAGE 2: STEAMBOAT SPRINGS TO ARAPAHOE BASIN
After the opening circuit stage through the Steamboat Springs area, cyclists tackle the first lengthy leg of the Pro Challenge with a 103-mile route from Steamboat to Arapahoe Basin.
While competitors won’t quite finish at the top of Loveland Pass — a signature route for just about every cyclist who visits Colorado — they’ll end roughly four miles short at the Arapahoe Basin base area. It’s not as though they’re getting off easy: The stage begins with a climb up Rabbit Ears Pass before slowly, slowly gaining elevation until racing reaches a fever pitch on U.S. Highway 6 between Keystone and A-Basin.
“After 90 miles of intense racing, it will be a great finish to introduce that last grueling, demanding climb up Loveland Pass,” Hunter said.
STAGE 3: COPPER MOUNTAIN RESORT TO ASPEN
Copper enters the Pro Challenge lineup with a bang, making its debut as the starting line for Stage 3. After leaving the resort village, athletes are thrown into the gauntlet on State Highway 91, with a 2,000-foot climb up and over Freemont Pass before leisurely winding down to Leadville.
Following Freemont, past champions like Levi Leipheimer will recognize the back half of the stage. The route takes cyclists to the top of Independence Pass before dropping into Aspen, which shares honors with Breckenridge as the only town to host a Pro Challenge stage every year since the race’s debut.
STAGE 4: ASPEN TO BRECKENRIDGE
Just a day after pedaling south from Summit to Pitkin, cyclists will about-face to make a return journey for Stage 4. The route is slightly different — this stage passes through Buena Vista and Fairplay along, with a second-half push over Hoosier Pass — but it requires yet another trip over Independence Pass.
While the middle routes seem suspiciously similar on paper, Hunter says officials planned the routes based on feedback from international teams. The verdict: Cyclists wanted faster routes, with more mountain passes and shorter distances between stages.
“Summit County deserves a big piece of the race, a big piece of the excitement, but that also comes from the natural construction of the course,” Hunter said. “It fit well competitively and logistically, but the bottom line is that Summit County has done an incredible job supporting the race.”
STAGE 5: BRECKENRIDGE INDIVIDUAL TIME TRIAL
Before teams head to the Front Range, cyclists get a final taste of thin mountain air with an individual time trial in and around Breckenridge. It replaces the vaunted Vail Pass time trial, a time-honored route that traces back to the Coors Classic and Red Zinger days in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.
With an average elevation of about 9,800 feet — it tops out at 10,088 feet and never drops below 9,600 feet — the 8.5-mile Breckenridge course promises to be unpredictable, beginning with a jagged climb up Moonstone Road on the way to Boreas Pass before a lightning-fast descent to the Main Street finish.
“The fans will be treated to something very special,” Hunter said. “From day one, I think that stage will become a classic, not just in terms of the Pro Challenge but in the history of Colorado racing.”