DENVER -- The 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 descent 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.
After the prologue, Stage 1 starts in Salida and goes up the 11,312-foot Monarch Pass with a mountaintop finish on Mount Crested Butte. After rides up Independence and Cottonwood passes, Stage 3 revives the Coors Classic time trial around Vail, where the 10-mile route is primarily uphill.
An easier Stage 4 will greet the 128 riders. Without significant climbs or high-speed descents, cyclists will have numerous opportunities for breakaways between Avon and Steamboat Springs, but the stage does feature a net elevation change of 5,000 feet.
Stage 5 from Steamboat Springs to Breckenridge gives riders another day filled with opportunities for breakaways and aggressive racing, but this one includes another mountain pass, the double-summit Rabbit Ears.
The final stage goes from Golden to Denver over treacherous Lookout Mountain, where the overall King of the Mountain will be decided. An average 6.1 percent grade and 1,300 feet of elevation gain over 4.8 miles provides a big challenge on the tour's final day.
After winding their way down Lookout Mountain, the racers will speed their way to Denver, where they'll take six laps around a five-mile downtown circuit with the finish line next to the State Capitol Building.
The race will feature national and international TV coverage, a boon to Colorado's tourism industry. Ever since it was announced last year that the pro cycling circuit was coming back to Colorado for the first time since the Coors International Bicycle Classic ended its run in 1988, cycling enthusiasts have speculated about the race traversing the two 12,000-foot passes during Stage 2.
Now that the route has been released, fans are expected to ride the stages themselves over the next 2½ months.
Twelve pro teams have been guaranteed spots in the race and four more eight-man teams will be invited in the coming weeks.