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Tour de Force

America’s answer to the tour de france kicks off in Aspen.

After climbing and descending Independence Pass the day prior, racers climb the pass to begin stage four of the 2012 USA Pro Challenge. Thousands of enthusiastic (and quirky) fans line the roads.

Racers climb Cottonwood Pass en route to Aspen during stage three of the 2012 USA Pro Challenge.

If not the most famous climb in cycling, the Alpe d’Huez is surely the most iconic mountain pass in the Tour de France. More than 400,000 spectators line the 21 hairpin turns that make up the notorious climb, which averages a gradient of roughly 8 percent over nearly eight miles. In this year’s 100th Tour de France, racers will double back across the monster climb in a 168-kilometer stage expected to attract the tour’s biggest crowds ever. It’s the most famous climb in cycling, but its stats pale in comparison to Aspen’s Independence Pass, which hosts stage two of America’s version of the Tour—the USA Pro Challenge.

While gradients are somewhat similar (grades top 7.5 percent in the last three miles of Independence Pass), the Alpe d’Huez gains 3,513 vertical feet on its way to a summit elevation of 6,069 feet. Independence Pass, meanwhile, from Aspen to the top of the Continental Divide, climbs more than 4,200 feet and tops out at 12,095 feet—almost double the elevation of its French counterpart. In fact, the starts and finishes of most stages in the 2013 USA Pro Challenge are above the highest elevations in the Tour de France.

Independence Pass features the added bonus of being bordered by two wilderness areas, thick forests, a crystal clear river and deep canyons. The scenic byway has hosted stages in the USA Pro Challenge the last two years, and this year’s stage on Aug. 20 promises even more spectators and fanfare.

As for viewing atop Independence Pass, the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District is retaining its regulations from last year. All campgrounds on Independence Pass will be open, but camping is prohibited between mile markers 56 and 66. Fans can drive to the summit early in the morning to park and view the race from the top of the pass, but will be required to move their cars at dusk for the evening. Biking to the summit is a popular option, as well. Many spectators who enjoyed camping atop the Pass for the 2011 race complained about the camping bans last year.

“We’re trying to protect the fragile alpine environment,” says Brian Porter, who works at the Aspen Ranger Station. “It takes more than a lifetime to regenerate tundra. Try to minimize your impact—stay on the edges of the road.”

Aspen has long attracted world-class cyclists and hosted major pro cycling races, but, this summer, Aspen is stepping it up a notch by kicking off the USA Pro Challenge with its toughest opening day in the race’s two-year history. America’s biggest cycling race starts in Aspen on Aug. 19, with an exciting circuit race between Aspen and Snowmass, climbing roughly 4,000 vertical feet during the three 22-mile laps. The next day, Aspen hosts the start of stage two, which climbs Independence Pass on its way to Breckenridge—a 126-mile trek.

After attracting more than 1 million spectators in 2012, the USA Pro Challenge is one of the largest cycling events in U.S. history and the largest spectator event in the history of Colorado. Aspen hosted a stage start in 2011 and a stage start and finish in 2012, but hosting the main start of the seven-day, nearly 600-mile race will be one of Aspen’s biggest event achievements.

“We’re able to host a world-class event because we’re a world-class community,” says Nancy Lesley, director of special events and marketing for the City of Aspen. “We want to showcase our backyard to the world in a way we’ve never done [before] in the summertime.”

Aspen’s cycling racing history dates back to 1978, when the town hosted a stage of the Red Zinger Bicycle Classic, which evolved into the Coors Classic and paved the way for professional bike racing in America. Aspen is home to many serious cyclists, including part-time residents Lance Armstrong and Tejay van Garderen. The local racing scene is thriving, with more than 70 participants racing in the Aspen Cycling Club.

Three years ago, the USA Pro Challenge aimed to revive Colorado’s international bike-racing scene. This year promises to be the best year yet for spectators. It’s more compact than years past (the farthest distance between venues is Denver to Aspen), and each of the eight host cities boasts both a start and a finish.

“The most important thing to us in creating the route for the 2013 USA Pro Challenge was to find a course that would be safe and challenging for the riders, while providing ideal viewing locations for the crowds of spectators,” says Shawn Hunter, CEO of the USA Pro Challenge.

The Aspen/Snowmass stage begins with two laps in downtown Aspen, before heading down Main Street to Maroon Creek Road. Racers will cross the Tiehack pedestrian bridge and follow Tiehack Road to Highway 82. They’ll take Owl Creek Road to Snowmass Village, then ride down Brush Creek Road, before turning onto and climbing Medicine Bow Road. Racers will follow Upper Ranch Road, before crossing at Smith Way and connecting with McLain Flats Road and Cemetery Lane. Racers will complete the loop three times.

What the 66-mile Aspen/Snowmass stage lacks in distance, it makes up for in punchy climbs. Event organizers claim 3,080 feet of climbing per lap, but local racer and Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers trail crew leader Charlie Eckart clocked the vertical climb per lap at 1,320 feet. He also measured the laps at 19.25 miles, versus the advertised distance of 22 miles per lap.

“It’s going to make for some animated, exciting bike racing,” says Eckart, 52, who has been racing with the Aspen Cycling Club for 20 years and has won the overall title for the last seven years. “The climbs—all one-quarter to one-half mile long—are short, but there are numerous climbs, like Owl Creek, W/J and Cemetery Lane that are total attack zones. They are just long enough that racers who are known as climbers can gap the field. It’s a dynamic course that [lends] itself to a lot of aggressive riding.”

There are numerous spectator locations throughout the route, but Eckart suggests watching the Medicine Bow or W/J climbs, or grabbing a spot at Tiehack to watch the racers speed across Maroon Creek bridge. Most of the route is visible from Aspen and Snowmass bike paths.

At press time, teams have yet to be announced for the 2013 USA Pro Challenge, but last year’s race featured 16 of the world’s best professional cycling teams and included Tour de France riders like Cadel Evans and Levi Leipheimer. The 2013 edition will host a similarly competitive field. Last year’s champion Christian Vande Velde, 37, of the Garmin-Sharp team based in Boulder, has confirmed he’ll return to defend his title. Runner-up and local favorite van Garderen, 24, of BMC Racing, has confirmed as well.

“We have a lot of big events to get through this season,” says van Garderen. “But while you’re racing, you have to know there is this big goal at the end of the season, and you have to save a little energy in [your] tank. The season starts to die down after the Tour, but this race has drawn podium finishers from the Tour to race full gas.”

Aspen will host a festival in conjunction with the race on Aug. 18, from 11am to 5pm, and on Aug. 19 from noon to 6pm. Events are yet to be announced, but the lineup will include group rides, clinics and amateur races. VIP tickets, which grant access to a VIP tent at the finish on Aug. 19 and at the start the next day, benefit Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club. aspenupcc.com