Some thought it couldn't be done. You couldn't convince world class Tour de France caliber cyclists to come from Europe to race in Colorado at 8,000 to 12,000-ft. elevations. You couldn't get thousands and thousands of spectators to watch such an event in Bronco/Rockies/Avalanche/Nuggets territory. And an upscale burger chain to be a founding sponsor? Right.
Yet the third annual USA ProCycling Challenge is set to kick off Monday, Aug. 19 in Aspen, with 16 top international teams fielding dozens of the world's top cyclists. And founding partner Smashburger -- itself growing and expanding in tough, demanding conditions -- will again fly its banner over the start/finish lines.
When we attended and researched the inaugural 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge, Smashburger's founder Tom Ryan saw a natural connection between the world's fastest and most durable cyclists and a company devoted to serving better burgers. Cycling is an physical activity, something that makes people feel better having accomplished it. Smashburger's building burgers to make folks a meal they feel great about. After all, great food and the great (mountain) outdoors is part of a great life.
This year, the Challenge's route is again beautiful but brutal for the cyclists, as the route goes from Aspen to Snowmass to Breckenridge to Steamboat Springs to Beaver Creek, Vail, Loveland, Fort Collins to Denver. That would be a spectacular but wearing seven-day trip by car. By bicycle, it boggles the mind. But the cyclists themselves have found the challenge tough but doable. We get to see the riders we see on television crossing the fields and scaling the mountains of Europe tackle the mighty Rockies.
Levi Leipheimer, a racer famous for his key performances on the U.S. Postal Service and Radio Shack teams with Lance Armstrong, won the first Challenge. Leipheimer is a Montanan by birth but lives in California. Nearing 40 years old, he has retired.
Christian Vande Velde, an Illinois native, who also raced with U.S. Postal, won the 2012 Challenge. Vande Velde crashed twice in this year's Tour de France but he will be on hand to defend his title. Vande Velde not only told the Denver Post he's rounding back into form but feels his Colorado-based team, Team Garmin-Sharp will be the top contenders this year. Teammate Tom Danielson is coming off a win at the Tour of Utah and Andrew Talansky finished 10th in France. Vande Velde said coming to Colorado to race is "a blast" compared to racing in France ("Defending Champ Christian Vande Velde says `I'm feeling better' as Pro Challenge nears," Denver Post, 8/18/13).