Best places to watch each stage of the USA Pro Challenge cycling action

NBC and NBC Sports will be airing thirty hours of USA Pro Challenge coverage next week as the country's biggest pro cycling event returns to Colorado for its second year, but die-hard fans will want to see the action firsthand, and it's a great excuse to see some of Colorado's coolest towns go all out. We broke down the seven-stage race, which starts on Monday in Durango and ends right here in Denver on Sunday, with an eye to the best spectating potential.

If you're there for the party, simply head for the Finish Festival set up at the finish line of each stage, where you'll watch most of the race on giant TV screens and will be in good position to catch any last-second breakaways in person. But if you're more interested in seeing some hellish climbs or harrowing descents, it's going to take some planning. Here's our handy guide, intercut with official race propaganda for each stage.

Stage 1: Durango to Telluride. Durango will give spectators their first and best introduction to this year's competitors with a three-lap "neutral parade" through downtown, starting at 10 a.m., followed by a five-mile loop around Fort Lewis College and a sprint through downtown to start the race off proper. If you're hell-bent on snapping action photos of your favorite rider, this will be your best bet: You'll get four good chances to wave your iPhone in the air with the teeming masses, and a fifth if you get in your car immediately and pin it to Telluride along US 50 north and Highway 62.

For the hard-core: Skip both the start and finish and head for Lizard Head Pass (between Dolores and Telluride on Highway 145), where riders will top out at 10,222 feet in a grueling climb that shows the USA Pro Challenge means business, even on Day 1, before tearing ass down into Telluride.

Stage 2: Montrose to Crested Butte. Skip the 11:25 a.m. start in Montrose if you want to see any other part of the race on Tuesday: Road closures and a lack of alternate routes will make it impossible. Good spots along the route include the sprint through Gunnison or another sprint through downtown Crested Butte, or anywhere along the final climb to Mt. Crested Butte.

For the hard-core: Post up on either side of the Blue Mesa Summit on US 50, the second of two moderate climbs early in Stage 2, to see some early strategic moves.

Stage 3: Gunnison to Aspen. After passing through in Stage 2, the race doubles back to Gunnison for the 10:10 a.m. start of Stage 3. For the sake of drama, we'd recommend finding a spot somewhere on the Aspen side of Independence Pass, where the pack will be positively screaming down from the 12,095-foot summit. Another good bet: Head straight for Aspen to check out the Blue Ribbon Alpine Challenge Women's Pro Race from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m., then find a good spot near the finish line. Estimated finish time for the USA Pro Challenge is 3:50 p.m.

For the hard-core: Cyclists will top out at 12,126 feet on Cottonwood Pass, the highest elevation of the entire race route, and the only way to get there is by bike: Cars won't be allowed within ten miles of the summit. Feel free to entertain delusions of 2013 USA Pro Challenge grandeur as you pump those pedals.

Stage 4: Aspen to Beaver Creek. Independence Pass is so nice the USA Pro Challenge is hitting it twice: Cyclists will take it from the other direction at the start of Stage 4, and it's as good a place to watch as any. Alternately: Maximize your time in the two glitziest, ritziest towns on the route by watching the neutral laps start in Aspen, then hitting the road along Highway 82 west and I-70 east to beat the race to Beaver Creek.

For the hard-core: Aspen and Beaver Creek not quite your style? Try setting up in Leadville, where the sprint through town will coincide with the Hometown Festival and should make for quite a party scene.

Stage 5: Breckenridge to Colorado Springs. Enterprising race fans can catch the 10:50 a.m. start in Breck, then hit the road and make it to Colorado Springs in time for the finish (assuming eastbound traffic on I-70 isn't a bitch, which may not be safe to assume), but several points along the route offer more promise. Race promoters are billing the downhill sprint into Woodland Park (ETA 2:30 p.m.) as "possibly the fastest point on this year's course," and they're probably right. The climb through the Garden of the Gods just might be the most picturesque. Bring your cameras.

For the hard-core: Post up near the 11,541-foot summit of Hoosier Pass (ETA 11:20 a.m.) to see some dudes putting in work, or anywhere along the descent into Fairplay to see them come whizzing down.

Stage 6: Golden to Boulder. The race route goes through Boulder twice on today's route, so set up near the Pearl Street Mall to catch both the sprint (ETA 12 p.m.) and the finish (ETA 3:20 p.m.). Alternately: Catch the 11:10 a.m. start in Golden and drive or bike to Boulder for the finish, or catch the sprint in Boulder and head to Left Hand Canyon near Lyons to catch the final climb. Stage 2 coincides with both Nedfest in Nederland and the Kinfolk Celebration in Lyons, so expect a party -- and a bluegrass soundtrack -- wherever you end up.

For the hard-core: A limited number of spectators will be allowed to watch from Sunrise Amphitheatre on Flagstaff Mountain, but you'll have to ride or hike up, and you'll have to get there early.

Stage 7: Denver. The route map for the final stage -- mostly along Speer Boulevard, Colfax Avenue, 17th Avenue and City Park -- could double for a Denver Cruiser Ride, starting and finishing in Civic Center Park. It will be flat but fast, and the time-trial finish will mean heightened, drawn-out drama and a chance to focus on individual riders rather than mad-dash mayhem at the finish line. Stay tuned: We'll post more details on how to make the most of the Denver stage next week.

For the hard-core: Bring a picnic (hard-core, right?) and post up in City Park, the most technical portion of the course, to see how time-trial racers who started in one-minute intervals close the gap.

For more info to plan your week, visit www.USAProCyclingChallenge.com and download the Radio Shack Tour mobile app.

See Also: - USA Pro Challenge unveils 2012 posters - The USA Pro Cycling Challenge ushers in second year of bike art installation - Americans sweep the 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge

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Colin Bane
Contact: Colin Bane