ASPEN, Colo. (AP) Three weeks after finishing fifth in the Tour de France for the second time, Tejay van Garderen returns to racing Monday in the weeklong USA Pro Challenge.
Van Garderen, who rides for BMC, is the defending champion and favorite in the 16-team race. The 128-rider field features three riders who finished among the top 12 in this year's Tour de France. Five of the top six finishers in the 2013 USA Pro Challenge are entered.
"To race in front of my family and friends is always special," said van Garderen," who lives in Aspen and last year beat Mathias Franck, the former BMC rider of Switzerland, by 1 minute, 30 seconds.
Australia's Michael Rogers (Tinkoff-Saxo), a former three-time world time trial champion who won two Tour of Italy stages this year, and American Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp), who took the Tour of Utah one week ago, are expected to challenge.
The revamped course of some 525 miles begins with a 61-mile circuit race that starts and ends in Aspen.
"The course looks to be more intense," said California rider Ben Jacques-Maynes (Jamis Hagens Berman), who has finished each of the three editions of the USA Pro Challenge.
Slovakia's Peter Sagan (Cannondale), who won four stages of the race last year, is not entered, likely creating a more open field.
"Every day could be an opportunity to change the race," said Jacques-Maynes. "Stage 3 finishes at more than 10,000 feet at Monarch Mountain, and our team will be looking for breakaways, hunt for stage wins and hopefully repeat last year's victory in the mountain competition."
Following the opening stage, the field will ride 105 miles Tuesday from Aspen to Crested Butte. The hilly Stage 3 on Wednesday is a 96-mile trek from Gunnison to a steep finish at Monarch Mountain, elevation 11,663 feet.
Danielson, who finished third overall last year, and Colombian teammate Janier Acevedo, a climbing specialist who was fourth overall in 2013, are expected to compete with van Garderen in the race's key mountain stage.
Van Garderen, who hasn't won a race this year since March, was predicted as a top-three candidate in the Tour de France. But he crashed four times in the first week and contracted bronchitis before equaling his 2012 overall finish.
"We are bringing a really motivated team and with a summit finish this year, it promises to be another hard race," said van Garderen, who had four wins last year, including the time trial and overall title at the USA Pro Challenge.
Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) of Poland, a double stage winner last month at the Tour de France and the recent Tour of Poland winner, is expected to ride in support of Rogers.
Czech Leopold Konig (NetApp-Endura), who finished seventh at the Tour de France and German veteran Jens Voigt (Trek) also are riding. Frank Schleck (Trek) of Luxembourg, 12th in the Tour de France, and two-time Giro d'Italia winner Ivan Basso (Cannondale) could be in the mix as well.
For Voigt, who turns 43 next month, this is his last race in an 18-year career. Voigt, who has about 100 career wins, including a stage of the USA Pro Challenge in 2012, is a two-time Tour de France stage winner. He rode in the Tour de France 17 times and finished 14 times, including this year's edition.
The seven-day race ends with a 78-mile stage from Boulder to Denver.