Van Garderen at US Pro Challenge. “He’s so money.”

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Garmin-Sharp’s Christian Vande Velde says victory in the US Pro Cycling Challenge will be tight — a question of “nickels and dimes.” If that’s the case, Tejay Van Garderen of BMC Racing brought a fat roll of quarters.

Backing him up in his mission to top his third place in last year’s race will be former Tour de France champion Cadel Evans, recent Tour of Utah winner Martin Tschopp, Mr Olympic Fourth Place Taylor Phinney and, in his final race before retirement, George Hincapie.

That’s plenty of shiny coins.

A year ago Van Garderen wore the leaders jersey in Colorado thanks to a bold, high speed descent off Independence Pass on the wet roads into Aspen. But a day later he was on the ground curled up in a fetal ball in tears having lost the Vail time trial to eventual winner Levi Leipheimer.

This year Van Garderen comes back to Colorado with a super strong team and the mile-high confidence that comes from finishing fifth in Le Grand Shindig in July. He can certainly bank on a strong team to help him control the race.

While it’s all systems go for Van Garderen, there are several question marks for his rivals. Levi Leipherimer has already admitted that it will be a daunting task to repeat his 2011 victory. Omega-Pharma Quickstep brings only five riders to support the little bald guy and that may not be enough. Come on, the guy is 38 and still recovering from the after-effects of his fractured leg. He could use a little help up the mountains.

Rival Vincenzo Nibali also brings a strong squad to the Rockies. His intention to battle for the win is clear, but his form and acclimatization aren’t. This is his first race, post Olympics. and while he has done a short training camp at altitude in Colorado, his adaptation might not be 100%. He has the diesel power of Ivan Basso and the local knowledge of Boulder resident — and US Road Race Champion — Timmy Duggan. Who really knows what the Snark has in mind?

The card-playing Jonathan Vaughters has his boys ready but which rider is prepared to kill Van Garderen’s chances? Tom Danielson is so excited about racing on his favorite climb of Flagstaff mountain that he is practically frothing at the mouth. Christian Vande Velde was second last year and looked capable in Utah. The Boulder-based squad would love to win this race on home turf. And it would cut down on the number of doping questions Vaughters would have to answer all week in light of his NY Times admission.

Can 41 year old Chris Horner of RadioShack Nissan-Trek put together one more age-defying performance in the Rockies? You can never count him out and the wily vet is a tactical expert. If he falters, Jakob Fuglsang is ready to take over the captain’s role. Despite his pre-Giro d’Italia injury and his being replaced on the Tour de France roster, he won the Tour of Luxembourg and Austria. He may even be getting his paychecks again with is always a good motivator.

Then there are the guerrilla operations, the Pro Conti teams that hope to pull off the long shot and spoil the party. Twisted Spoke sees two possibilities for a freak occurrence that breaks up the ProTeam dominance.

Lucas Euser of SpiderTech is one rider with an outside shot at the top five and who knows, maybe a miraculous third. A Colorado rider who knows the roads well, he’s totally adapted to the high altitudes and know exactly how to race in these conditions. After several years of near career ending injury, he’s put together two seasons without any crashes side-tracking his progression. The little guy can climb and on any given day and mountain is capable of shocking the big boys.

The locos at EMP-UNE are back. Last year there were two squads from Colombia but then the Gubernacion d’Antiogia lost Sergio Henao to Sky and baby face Oscar Seville to suspension. Tom Danielson called them “crazy” because of their unpredictable, attack at any moment style. Abreu Infantio finished six overall a year ago and he’d be the hombre to cause a serious South of the Border reshuffle in the GC. Again, some luck and confusion among the favorites will be a serious requirement.

Last year, the Colombians said the mountain stages in the Rockies weren’t hard enough for them to make a real difference — like they had done in Utah. It’s a tougher route for 2012 and that makes these guys happy. We expect fireworks and who knows — maybe a fiesta on the final podium in Denver.

The US Pro Cycling Challenge is Tejay Van Garderen’s to lose. In a race of nickles and dimes, he is so money.

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