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The 2012 USA Pro Cycling Challenge is longer and higher than 2011's inaugural race: In seven days, road bikers cover 683 miles and 42,000 feet of elevation gain. Levi Leiphemier returns to defend his title, with a field including Tour de France winners Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck chasing him up and over nine mountain passes. Here's a primer on the action from August 20–26, plus ways to play in the mountain towns along the way.
Stage 1: Durango to Telluride
The PCC starts with neutral laps circling Durango, leading to an all-out sprint for the first valuable tour points. Then riders climb 110 miles to 10,222-foot Lizard Head Pass, descending 15 miles to the stage finish in Telluride. Watch for: Early breakaways for two sprint lines and big action on the way up to Lizard Head Pass as teams fight for position. If you go: Climb to the top of Lizard Pass from Telluride to cheer like a Belgian before retiring to town and a night at The New Sheridan.
Stage 2: Montrose to Crested Butte
Two hearty climbs over Cerro Summit and Blue Mesa Summit lead to intermediate sprint points in Gunnison and Crested Butte. From there, racers grind up through cowbell clanging fans to the finish at the base of Mount Crested Butte. Watch for: Racers looking to prove themselves launching breakaways on the first two climbs; bigger teams may conserve energy for monster climbs waiting on Stage 3. If you go: Ride mountain bikes on the national treasure that is the 401 trail. Sample rum cocktails at Montanya Distillers and tuck in at the Inn at Crested Butte.
Stage 3: Gunnison to Aspen
Over 131 miles of racing, riders pedal to 12,000 feet twice. Sprinters lunge for the line in Buena Vista, then the peloton regroups and climbs to 12,000-foot Independence Pass for a hairball descent into Aspen. Watch for: A successful breakaway on this stage could shake up the yellow jersey standings. If you go: Pedal 10 miles up Maroon Creek Road to view the Maroon Bells. Then cruise back into Aspen to catch the finish before dining on the infamous ribs at the Hickory House.
Stage 4: Aspen to Beaver Creek
It's back up to 12,000 feet over Independence Pass, with the riders leaving luxurious Aspen for an uphill finish into posh Beaver Creek 97 miles away. Watch for: An early breakaway by King of the Mountain leaders, plus other attacks on the yellow jersey. Leaders fight for precious seconds on the final climb into Beaver Creek. If you go: Take a day off the bike and bag a 14er near Leadville with a nine-mile hike up 14,433-foot Mount Elbert, or a demanding 13.75-mile scramble to the summit of 14,421-foot Mount Massive.
Stage 5: Breckenridge to Colorado Springs
The peloton climbs 10 miles up to 11,500-foot Hoosier Pass before heading downhill in Woodland Park, hitting speeds around 50mph and finishing in Colorado Springs. Watch for: After racers roll over Hoosier Pass, look for breakaways to launch while teams try and keep the field together for an exciting bunch finish. If you go: Explore 15 miles of trails and feast your eyes on fin-like red rock formations throughout Garden of the Gods.
Stage 6: Golden to Boulder
Three torturous climbs up Boulder Canyon, Lee Hill, and Flagstaff Mountain provide the last chance for climbers to move themselves higher in overall point standings. Watch for: Attacks on Lee Hill and big moves on the 3.5-mile climb up punishing Flagstaff Road. If you go: See our Spring Multisport: Boulder article for post-race outdoor fun.
Stage 7: Denver
Last year 250,000 fans showed up for the final stage in Denver. This year features a flat time trial that starts and finishes in Civic Center Park. Individuals jockeying for a top spot in the overall standings will have a fight on their hands as time trial specialists race for the win. Watch for: Levi Leipheimer to defend his 2011 victory with Christian Vande Velde and Tejay Van Garderen putting it all on the line as they go for the Tour win. If you go: Relax at City Park and catch individual riders pushing their limits in the race against the clock. —Dave MacRunnel
Visit usaprocyclingchallenge.com for more information, course maps, and special offers for spectator packages.