DENVER (AP) – Reigning Tour de France champion Cadel Evans, American star Levi Leipheimer and several of the world’s top cyclists will roll off the start line at the USA Pro Challenge next month.
The second-year stage race in Colorado announced its lineup of teams on Wednesday, and it includes six UCI ProTour teams – the highest classification of professional cycling teams.
They include American teams Garmin-Sharp and BMC Racing Team, the outfit that is trying to shepherd Evans to his second straight Tour de France title this month. Others include the Omega Pharma-Quickstep team of Leipheimer, Liquigas-Cannondale and RadioShack-Nissan-Trek.
PHOTO GALLERY: 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge
“After winning the Tour de France last year and seeing the enthusiasm of the fans, I didn’t think anything could match it, but then I came to Colorado,” Evans said. “Seeing the huge crowds that were along the route supporting us at the USA Pro Challenge was remarkable.”
The inaugural race attracted more than 1 million spectators, making it one of the largest cycling events in U.S. history, and organizers hope to nearly double the attendance this year.
“The course and the mountains were beautiful, but incredibly challenging, and I can’t wait to take them on again,” said Evans, who began Wednesday in second behind Britain’s Bradley Wiggins in the Tour’s overall standings. “I knew last August that I wanted to return to the race.”
The USA Pro Challenge begins Aug. 20 in Durango, Colo., and covers 683 miles with more than 42,000 feet of vertical climbing – one of the highest-elevation races in the world.
The stage from Gunnison to Aspen midway through the race – the so-called “Queen Stage” – includes two massive climbs: 14 miles of dirt climbing to the 12,126-foot summit of Cottonwood Pass, and later, an equally demanding climb to the famed Independence Pass.
The race concludes Aug. 26 with a time trial in Denver.
“After the 2011 USA Pro Challenge, we had such an overwhelmingly positive response from the teams that it was difficult to narrow it down to 16 teams,” race CEO Shawn Hunter said.
Leipheimer is the defending champion, but he’ll again have a stiff challenge from the likes of Evans, reigning U.S. road champion Timmy Duggan, former Tour de France podium finisher Frank Schleck and Chris Horner, who won last year’s Tour of California.
Five-time Olympian George Hincapie is also scheduled to race. The veteran from the BMC Racing Team announced his intention to retire from professional cycling after this season.
Full team lineups will be announced at a later date.
“The USA Pro Challenge is building a reputation for having the highest caliber teams in the world, creating fierce competition in the Colorado Rockies,” Hunter said. “I can’t wait to see what these teams have in store for us this August.”
By DAVE SKRETTA, AP Sports Writer
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