Yay! Colorado Springs is hosting the USA Pro Cycling Challenge prologue!
So, um, what the hell is it?
As most simply explained on usaprocyclingchallenge.com, a prologue is an individual time trial that determines the order of riders in a race's first road stage on the following day.
Starting at 1:15 p.m., Monday, Aug. 22, cyclists will be released in one-minute intervals from the intersection of Gateway Road and Juniper Way inside the Garden of the Gods. They'll travel south up Ridge Road, descend down to Colorado Avenue, and essentially sprint to the crossing of Cascade Avenue downtown. The total distance, just over five miles, should take riders about 11 minutes, according to event technical director Randy Shafer.
Using NASCAR as an analogy, Shafer says the prologue is like qualifying, where individual track times earn riders a certain position on the grid. Though sponsors love seeing their riders up front, it actually means little in terms of strategy, come Salida's starting line on Aug. 23.
"The [Stage 1] race is five hours long, and it doesn't matter if you're 10 meters behind someone else at the start," says 28-year-old, Boulder-based rider Timmy Duggan. "Typically the start is pretty relaxed, and you're not fighting for a second here or there right off the starting line."
Risk and reward
So is that to say the prologue is truly an unimportant aspect of a stage race?
Not exactly, because a rider's prologue time still counts against his overall time for the week; somewhere along the way, he'll still have to make up however many seconds he finishes behind the guy who earns the yellow jersey. And unlike in the three-week-long Tour de France, there will be only six days in which to do it. There's also a prologue time cut-off that on rare occasion will eliminate a rider from the overall race.
"There's a few seconds to be won or lost, and you still have to approach it with the mentality of going full gas," says Duggan, who specializes in time-trialing and climbing, and has been a part of multiple USA World Championship teams. "If you win, you're only going to be a couple seconds ahead of your competitors, but it's kinda more of a psychological blow to show that, 'Hey, I'm really on form and you better watch out for me the rest of the week.'"
He adds that in a short, fast time trial such as this one, it's not necessarily the strongest rider who'll win. It might be the guy who takes the most risks around the corners before leaving Garden of the Gods.
"I definitely think you'll see a few more surprises in Colorado Springs than you will in the Vail time trial [Aug. 25], when at that point, there's really only going to be three or four guys physically able to win that."
Riders are likely to top out at speeds around 50 mph, and yes, it is dangerous. At the 2008 Tour de Georgia, Duggan himself crashed at 45 mph and suffered a traumatic brain injury that nearly killed him.
Gone with the wind
The threat of further calamity is omnipresent, and not just because the star of Duggan's current Liquigas-Cannondale team in Italy is known as Ivan "the Terrible" Basso. Put simply, racing — especially in a time trial — is always a balancing act, wherein each racer has to weigh the need for self-preservation against the need for speed.
That's why as much as it's about attitude, confidence and courage, it's about precision.
"You have to treat a prologue like a ski race," says Duggan, himself a former alpine ski racer. "Like, every little corner, it matters a few hundredths of a second, and every time you pick your head up, it matters. You think about gauging your effort, but you think about staying out of the wind a lot more than you would in just a regular road race."
Besides the wind, the other, most obvious natural factor with which to contend will be the altitude. It could be argued that Duggan and other Colorado riders like Tom Danielson and Danny Pate have an advantage by living here, but you won't see them blithely coasting past a bunch of lycra-wearing windbags at 6,000 feet — or even twice that. Duggan says he felt mildly lightheaded while recently training over the 12,000-foot-plus Independence and Cottonwood passes, both of which will be summited Wednesday, Aug. 24.
"You just don't have as many bullets to fire as you would at sea level," he says. "If you go over the red line once, it's really hard to recover."
All that said, "You really can't over-think it, because at the end of the day you just have to go as hard as you can for as long as you can. If you just keep it that simple, then it usually works out pretty good."