USA Pro Cycling Challenge Summits Rocky Mountain Passes

by Arnie Stapleton, AP, via The Huffington Post,

Colorado Pro Cycling Challenge. Photo: APThe inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge in August will feature the two highest climbs in competitive international cycling history on the same stage.

The jewel of the nearly 500-mile course through mountain and metro roads is the Queen’s Stage from Gunnison to Aspen on Aug. 24, the third day of the weeklong race. It includes ascents over 12,126-foot Cottonwood Pass and 12,095-foot Independence Pass, where oxygen levels are close to half of what they are at sea level.

“Our motto is, ‘The Mountain Changes Everything,'” said race director Jim Birrell of Medalist Sports, the race producer. “The key elements are elevation and altitude.”

The first 12 miles up Cottonwood Pass are on dirt, adding to the challenge on the riders’ thin road tires.

“I don’t think we’ve ever taken riders on such a long journey on dirt,” Birrell said.

The cyclists will ascend 2,740 feet over nearly 14 miles to reach Cottonwood Pass, the highest point during the weeklong race. After a tough climb and fast descent comes another grueling climb up Independence Pass, a road that’s narrow and steep with a 6.5 percent gradient and numerous switchbacks.

Organizers had to seek permission from the International Cycling Union to route their race over the twin peaks.

“I don’t know if you can pick another stage anywhere in the world that has the physical and mental demands of the Queen’s Stage,” said Shawn Hunter, race CEO and co-chairman.

Despite grueling ascents and fast descents, Birrell said safety was paramount in designing the arduous route.

Last month, 26-year-old Belgian Wouter Weylandt died when he crashed after clipping a wall during a decent in the Giro d’Italia.

Birrell asked cycling teams and cycling federations about the feasibility of the grueling second stage and then checked with the Colorado Department of Transportation and other agencies to ensure road conditions would be good.

The race through Colorado’s front range and the picturesque Rocky Mountains begins with an ultra-fast prologue in which riders will descend from the Garden of the Gods at 50-plus mph and into Colorado Springs. The race ends in downtown Denver on Aug. 28.

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