The 2014 USA Pro Challenge will include an uphill finish at the base area of the Monarch Mountain Ski Area.
From a racing standpoint, the most interesting news coming out of the recent USA Pro Challenge route announcement was the fact the Colorado stage race will finally feature a (sort of) real mountaintop finish when it heads up the gradual eastern slopes of Monarch Pass to the stage 3 finish at Monarch Mountain Ski Area.
I write "sort of" because the race is not actually finishing at the summit of Monarch Pass (elevation 11,312 feet), but at the ski area's base area, which sits at 10,790 feet. That means if they climb the pass' east side (very likely), the route will fall about two miles short of the actual summit. If they climb the west side (very unlikely) there would be a two-mile descent to the finish after reaching the summit.
Now the question is how racers will actually get from the start city in Gunnison to the ski area, which sits on the other side of the pass on the east side. They could take the most direct route, heading straight east on Highway 50. But that's less than 50 miles, so we can assume that wont be the route since this is a World Tour race not the Ride the Rockies charity event.
Option No. 2 would have the field head north out of Gunnison toward Crested Butte, then head up and over Cottonwood Pass, drop into Buena Vista, head south toward Poncha Springs, and the roll back west up Highway 50 to Monarch Mountain. That route would be roughly 107 miles with a whole bunch of climbing.
Option No. 3 would be to head east out of Gunnison, then go southeast on Highway 114 over North Pass and on to Saguache, then head north on HWY285 to Poncha Springs, and finally up to the ski area, which has an expansive parking lot at its base area. This route would be about 126 miles and also have plenty of climbing.
Both these routes could be a little longer if race organizers opted for a less direct route that included a pass through Salida, which would add roughly 10 extra miles, but include a city that has formerly served as a host destination.
As for that "mountaintop" finishing climb, it's tough but not brutal. From the intersection of highways 285 and 50, riders will gain about 3,300 feet over the span of about 17 miles. That translates to an average grade of around 5 percent, which means speeds will be fairly high. Bottom line, this stage will certainly shake up the race. But I still see the outcome coming down to the Vail time trial just like it did last year.
I'm also intrigued by Stage 2, Aspen to Mt. Crested Butte, which presents two major hurdles: either extended downhill sections on dirt or massive mileage. To stay off dirt, the shortest route is about 178 miles. That's pretty unlikely, so downhill dirt it is. My guess would be a routing that went west out of Aspen to Carbondale, then a southern run down HWY133, over McClure Pass (a nasty Cat. 1 climb), and finally up and over Kebler Pass, which isn't terribly steep, but does have sections of downhill dirt.
The other option would be to leave Aspen going east, up and over Independence Pass, south to Buena Vista, and then up and over Cottonwood Pass and on to Mt. Crested Butte. The problem here is that from the summit of Cottonwood, there's a 13.6-mile stretch of dirt road on the west side that can get pretty wash-boarded in the summer. It's one thing to climb it on a road bike (which this race has already done). But to descend at race pace could be downright dangerous. So I seriously doubt that will be the route.
The other piece of noteworthy news coming out of the recent press release is that organizers are giving fans the chance to voice their opinion on the routing of the final stage. Those choices include Golden to Denver, Boulder to Golden, Boulder to Denver or a Denver circuit race. Fans interested in making their voice heard can log on to www.prochallenge.com/PickStage7 and give their opinion on the four options.
"We receive a lot of feedback from fans about the race and in particular the route, so, for the first time ever, we're having fans weigh in on the final stage," said Shawn Hunter, CEO of the USA Pro Challenge. What Hunter did not say is how much weight those opinions will actually have.
While that matter will remain undecided for now, eight other host cities that will serve as starts and finishes for the 2014 USA Pro Challenge, Aug. 18-24, have been determined.
The race will kick off by heading back to Aspen for the overall start of the 2014 edition. Mt. Crested Butte, Gunnison, Colorado Springs, Woodland Park, Breckenridge and Vail round out the host city list. Here's how the stages will connect:
Stage 1: Monday, Aug. 18 - Aspen Circuit Race
Stage 2: Tuesday, Aug. 19 - Aspen to Mt. Crested Butte
Stage 3: Wednesday, Aug. 20 - Gunnison to Monarch Mountain
Stage 4: Thursday, Aug. 21 - Colorado Springs Circuit Race
Stage 5: Friday, Aug. 22 - Woodland Park to Breckenridge
Stage 6: Saturday, Aug. 23 - Vail Individual Time Trial
Stage 7: Sunday, Aug. 24 - To Be Determined
Additional details regarding the start and finish locations of the 2014 race, as well as the specific, detailed route will be announced in the spring.