To precede the first installment of our 2012 USA Pro Challenge coverage, we asked Whit Yost for a brief history of the American Stage Races as they stand today.
While relatively new additions to the UCI’s international cycling calendar, the Amgen Tour of California, Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, and USA Pro Challenge did not come out of nowhere. As recent manifestations of American cycling’s rich history, these events continue their predecessors’ tradition of offering top-flight competition on some of the world’s most challenging terrain.
In fact, the history of American stage races dates back to the 1970s and Colorado’s Red Zinger Bicycle Classic, a mountainous event that quickly achieved international renown as one of the sport’s most difficult. Tempted by good weather, high altitude, and the unique cultural perks (i.e. blue jeans and shopping malls) that came with racing in the American Rockies, cycling’s top international stars began to make the trip to the Zinger. In the 1980s, Coors took over as sponsor and the race became the Coors International Bicycling Classic.
Though the final edition of the Coors Classic was held in 1988, a new American stage race called the Tour de Trump began the following spring. The two-week event ran along the eastern seaboard and offered significant prize money. Renamed the Tour DuPont in 1991, the race brought international acclaim and more of the sport’s best riders and teams back the United States. In a sign of the cross-pollination between European riders and U.S. stage racing, Mexico’s Raul Alcala became the first man win both the Coors Classic and the Tour de Trump in 1990, and two-time Coors Classic winner Greg LeMond became the first American to win both races when he took the Tour DuPont in 1992. After Lance Armstrong’s second Tour DuPont victory in 1996, the race folded, leaving an America-sized hole on the international calendar.
Then came 1999 and the first of Lance Armstrong’s now-revoked Tour de France “victories.” Promoters rushed to capitalize on the sport’s renewed popularity among sponsors and fans. In 2003, a new race entered the calendar—the Tour de Georgia—a six-day event in late-April that lured several of the sport’s first division teams. Unfortunately, the race collapsed after its final edition in 2008—three years after Armstrong’s final visit to the top step of a Tour de France podium.
Luckily, 25 years after the state hosted the nation’s first international stage race (the first “Tour of California” took place in 1970 but folded soon after), a new event was launched in California, a race looking to lure international riders and teams. Better still, this race looked to have the legs it needed to survive.
The Tour of California
The first edition of the contemporary Tour of California took place in February so as not to conflict with other important European stage races. Thanks to this early date and the widespread assumption that The Golden State would provide the perfect opportunity for early season training miles, the race was an easy choice for European professionals hoping to avoid crowded and often dangerous early-season races in southern France, Italy, and Spain. In November 2006, the race received a ranking of 2.HC from the UCI, a designation reserved for the sport’s most competitive shorter stage races.
But despite its popularity with riders and fans, the initial editions of the Tour of California often battled poor weather, as the race’s February date coincided with the Golden State’s brief rainy season. Furthermore, the event’s organizers were unable to take advantage of California’s most challenging (and spectacular) scenery as many of the state’s high mountain passes were still snow-covered at such an early time of year.
In 2010, the event moved to May to find better weather and more challenging roads. But while the new date did indeed present greater possibilities in the way of course design, it also created a conflict for riders hoping to compete in the Giro d’Italia. Luckily, May is an ideal time for the stars of the spring Classics to make their returns to racing. These riders proved quick to embrace the California race with its eager fans and remove from the harsh glare of the European cycling media. Classics protagonists such as Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan, and Philippe Gilbert have all made the trip, often weeks after winning cobbled Monuments such as Ghent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix.“The race also presents an opportunity for Tour de France contenders to gain race miles in between high altitude training camps. Andy and Frank Schleck, Vincenzo Nibali, and Robert Gesink have raced recent editions as part of their preparation for the French tour, with Gesink becoming the first foreign grand tour contender to win the American event last year.”Whit Yost
Looking forward, a new wave of American riders led by young stars Tejay van Garderen, Andrew Talansky, and Joe Dombrowski appears poised to ensure that the future of American cycling is a bright one. Van Garderen recently became the first of this new generation win the Tour of California. And the apparent ease with which he dominated the eight-day event suggests the United States might not have to wait long for another Tour de France champion.
The Tour of Utah
While the Amgen Tour of California has become the most prestigious stage race on the domestic calendar, it is by no means the most difficult. That distinction might belong to a race two years its senior: the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. Known for its high altitude and soaring temperatures, the Tour of Utah originally existed as the Thanksgiving Point Stage Race & Cycling Festival, a 3-day event held over Memorial Day Weekend from 2004 to 2006. American’s John Osguthorpe, Andrew Bajadali, and Scott Moninger were the first three winners of the event’s early iteration.
After signing the Larry H. Miller Group as title sponsor in 2006, the race moved to August and expanded to six days. Encouraged by the larger event’s success, the race was purchased by the Utah Cycling Partnership (a subsidiary of the Larry H. Miller Group) in 2007 and re-launched as a National Racing Calendar event in 2008.
During the first several years of its existence, the Tour of Utah was primarily a domestic affair. The race generally attracted American teams hoping to score a major stage race victory on home soil (Jeff Louder won the race for a then-domestic Team BMC in 2008 and US-based Francisco Mancebo won the event for Rock Racing in 2009). European-based Americans looking for a week of high-altitude training in Utah’s western Rockies also competed in Utah during these early years. Levi Leipheimer took back-to-back victories in 2010 and 2011.
The subsequent arrival of Colorado’s USA Pro Challenge has only added to Utah’s success as it’s more logistically and financially feasible for international squads to make the trip for two races as opposed to one. The return of the event’s UCI ranking in 2011 helped as well. Utah has since seen the quality of its field jump noticeably: five World Tour teams participated in 2011 and six in 2012. Not coincidentally, the event crowned its first European-based champion with Johan Tschopp’s victory for Team BMC last year.
Overall, the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah looks ready to emerge from the shadow of its younger compatriots to become more than just a training stop on the way to Colorado, a sure sign that the sport has finally acknowledged the event’s status as one of North America’s most important stage races—and to many, the hardest as well.
The USA Pro Challenge
In 2011, Colorado welcomed a new race designed to rival both the prestige of the Tour of California and the difficulty of the Tour of Utah: the USA Pro Challenge. The first edition of the 7-day event boasted monster climbs, spectacular scenery, and the top-3 finishers from the recently-completed Tour de France: Cadel Evans of Team BMC and the Schleck brothers of Leopard Trek.
The late-August weather meant organizers were free to take advantage of the Colorado Rockies and several stages took the riders over 10,000 feet. Stage 2’s 131-mile route from Gunnison to Aspen featured Independence Pass (12,126 feet) and Cottonwood Pass (12,095 feet) before descending to the finish in Aspen. Despite the downhill ride to the finish, the high-altitude passes played a significant role in determining the day’s outcome. Other stages included a summit finish in Breckenridge and an uphill time trial in Vail.“While the Challenge has attracted some of Europe’s finest professionals, Americans have dominated the first two editions of the race and with good reason: A large portion of the country’s top athletes reside in Colorado, and many American professionals find themselves racing on home roads.”Whit Yost
Case in point: While California’s Levi Leipheimer was the event’s inaugural champion, Christian Vande Velde and Tejay van Garderen joined him on the final podium in Denver. Vande Velde lived in Boulder for several years, and van Garderen resides there currently.
The second edition of the Challenge followed much the same formula as the first: High-altitude climbing sorted the GC and an individual time trial ultimately settled it. But three changes injected new suspense. First, the organizers skipped the Prologue in favor of a 126-mile road stage from Durango to Telluride. This opening road stage kept the general classification tighter, while providing a more exciting conclusion to the event’s first day. Next, a “summit” finish at Boulder’s Sunrise Amphitheater was added to the event’s penultimate day—much to the joy of the record numbers of fans lining its slopes.
Last but not least, Vail’s individual time trial was moved to the final day of the race, a change that brought a dramatic conclusion to an event that had already seen four different riders wear the yellow leader’s jersey. After finishing second to Boulder’s Taylor Phinney on the 9.5-mile course, Vande Velde pulled it on for good.
After only two years of existence, the USA Pro Challenge has clearly joined the Tours of California and Utah as one of America’s premier races. An event able to attract and challenge many of the sport’s best international competitors, the race joins the Tour of California as one of only two 2.HC events held on domestic soil.
The Domestic Rider
Winning one of these races requires good legs, but also motivation. An American eager to win an important domestic event in front of home fans is a leading contender. A rider who wants to win should be familiar with the terrain, weather, and culture that come with racing in the United States. Physically, a rider must be able to handle the high mountains, while holding in his own shorter individual time trials. He must also be someone who races for a team with a competitive international program and a roster deep enough to control a stage race from start to finish. The ideal rider for all three races is a bit of a hybrid.