Dennis, Caruso among the favorites for USA Pro Challenge

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) Rohan Dennis of Australia and teammate Damiano Caruso of Italy are among the favorites for the USA Pro Challenge in the absence of two-time champion Tejay van Garderen.

The fifth-year race, which features 16 men's teams pedaling for 617 miles in seven days, begins Monday with a 97-mile, two-lap circuit race in Steamboat Springs. The inaugural three-day women's stage race starts Friday with 12 teams competing on the same course as Stage 5 for the men, a hilly 8.5-mile individual time trial in Breckenridge.

Dennis, 25, who rides for the American-based BMC team, last competed in the United States in the 2014 Tour of California.

''It has been a long season for me,'' said Dennis, who claimed the Tour Down Under in Australia in January and also was part of his squad's winning time trial performance in Stage 9 of the Tour de France. ''I really haven't had a break all season.''

Dennis' time trial win at the opening Tour de France stage was clocked at 34.5 mph, the fastest in race history.

A few weeks after his Tour Down Under title, Dennis set the new hour record at 32.61 miles. It was eclipsed about three months later by Alex Dowsett of Britain.

''I know the team is hoping to come away with some stage wins here,'' Dennis said. ''And for me that means the time trial on Stage 5.''

Caruso, 27, who finished eighth at the Tour of Italy in May, rode with Dennis in support of van Garderen last month in the Tour de France. The Colorado-based van Garderen was in third in cycling's biggest event before withdrawing on Stage 17 with respiratory problems.

The 27-year-old van Garderen, who claimed the 2014 USA Pro Challenge by 1 minute and 32 seconds over compatriot Tom Danielson, will be competing in the three-week Tour of Spain, beginning Saturday. Van Garderen also finished second at the USA Pro Challenge in 2012 and third in 2011.

Danielson, 37, who rides for Cannondale-Garmin, also finished third at the 2013 USA Pro Challenge. But he won't compete this year after withdrawing of the eve of the recent Tour of Utah after a positive result for testosterone was announced from an out-of-competition test in early July.

Roman Kreuziger (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Janier Acevedo (Cannondale-Garmin), third overall two years ago in the Tour of California, also are expected to contend for the title.

American Brent Bookwalter also is part of the BMC team. Bookwalter, 31, finished third this season in the Tour of Utah and fourth in the Tour of Austria.

"In Colorado, the climbs aren't as steep, but the elevation is higher overall,'' said Bookwalter, a three-time Tour de France finisher who finished in the top 10 in all seven Tour of Utah stages. "The key component there is the time trial.

''Traditionally in Colorado it's a little bit more tactical and more pack racing, if you will, on the climbs, and then it really comes down to the time trial.''

Kristin Armstrong (Twenty 18-SHO-AIR), 42, of Boise, Idaho, and Mara Abbott (Wiggle-Honda), 29, of Boulder, Colorado, are among the top contenders for the women's race. Armstrong is a two-time Olympic time trial gold medalist.

The men's competition ends next Sunday with a 68-mile road race from Golden to Denver, while the women's race also ends Sunday with a circuit race in Golden.

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