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VAIL, Colo. (VN) – Ten miles. A vertical gain of 1,100 feet. Two completely different riders and two completely different equipment choices ended with a .58-second difference between Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) and Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Cervélo). The two Americans sit atop the GC after the third stage on Vail Pass, but how exactly did such different circumstances lead to such a narrow stage win for the former?
Leipheimer and Vande Velde, 37 and 35 years old, respectively, are veterans of the U.S. pro peloton. Both are former top-five finishers at the Tour de France and they are neighbors in Girona, Spain. Neither rider is particularly explosive, though Leipheimer has shown the ability to place well-timed, sharp attacks in the last two years. Diesel engines, Leipheimer and Vande Velde are both most at home when the pace in the high mountains is hard and consistent.
The Vail time trial suited them perfectly. Leipheimer and Vande Velde are both anchors in their squads’ team time trial rotation. The former has won TT stages in the biggest races in the world — he won three Tours of California this way — and Vande Velde has proven reliable in late-race time trials at the Tour de France. Each is among the sport’s elite climbers and came into the uphill TT as favorites.
All of that said, Leipheimer and Vande Velde are very different riders. At 5-foot-11, Vande Velde is five inches taller than his rival. He also outweighs Leipheimer by almost 15 pounds. While Leipheimer is built in the manner of a pure climber who can time trial, Vande Velde is a former track pursuiter and is an able all-rounder who can go uphill well.
Vande Velde entered the stage fifth overall and started at 3:05 p.m. Thursday. He was Leipheimer’s two-minute man, as the RadioShack rider sat fourth overall after both men missed the decisive split on the descent from Independence Pass Wednesday.
The strong cross-tailwind that blanketed the false flat opening five miles early in the stage calmed late in the day. The skies were constantly mostly sunny — even if they weren’t, the men’s adjacent starts would have zeroed out any variance in the tricky Colorado weather.
Vande Velde rolled off the start ramp and onto the brick roads of Vail Village smoothly, careful to not raise his heart rate to quickly and risk going hypoxic too early in the stage. Vande Velde said he watched the official’s countdown to his start feeling “ready to rip the pedals off.”
He started well, getting on top of his gears quickly after climbing the steep, winding ramp leading to the road that would batter him for 9.5 miles. Vande Velde’s equipment choice was likely most to blame for the 19 seconds he went on to lose before the road tilted up sharply after five miles.
The Garmin man sat atop a Cervélo R5ca ultralight frame with bullhorned time trial bars set up to mirror his position on his P4 time trial bike. He spun a rear disc and 80mm front wheel, all-in-all his standard TT setup, aside from the frame.
The decision was months in the making.
“I calculated the difference of all the aerodynamic components and how they would impact the race,” said Garmin director of sport science, Robbie Ketchell who said he starting really cranking on the aerodynamics of the stage after the Tour de France.
When VeloNews asked how the 19 seconds stacked up against his expectations, Ketchell said, “Ironically, it was pretty spot on, to be honest.”
Leipheimer, meanwhile, was flying toward Vail Pass from the ski area. Deep in his signature lotus position atop his Trek Speed Concept TT bike, Leipheimer pushed his standard time trial gear up the road. He cruised past the Vail Racquet Club on Big Horn Road and onto the base of the climb feeling great.
“You had to meter your effort and there were times that I told myself to back off at the beginning because I knew the last 2k would hurt,” Leipheimer told VeloNews.
Leipheimer stood, just as Vande Velde had almost two minutes earlier, to fight his way up the short, steep ramp 3.5 miles from the finish, his standard-length Giro helmet bobbing over his back.
Up ahead, Vande Velde was onto one of the quarter-mile sections of milder ground, enjoying the light weight of his carbon road frame as his legs spun at a high cadence. He was making time.
Riding into the road-clogging crowds 700 meters from the line, Vande Velde rocked his shoulders with effort and when he sprinted across the line, the Illinois native stopped the clock at 25:47.66. The time was a course record for the Vail time trial, which dates back to the Coors Classic, eclipsing Aussie Ben Day’s standard set a few years ago by under a second.
“Regardless of equipment, Christian did an amazing ride,” said Ketchell. “It’s one of the best time trials he’s done in a while.”
The record wouldn’t stand, however, as Leipheimer’s 19-second buffer was just enough. Just enough. The stage 1 winner reached to his rear shifter on the tip of his right aero bar, pulled it down to gear up, and sprinted to the line. His time: 25:47.08, a new record, a second stage win and, eventually, a second yellow jersey in the race’s inaugural edition.
“I tell you, I was pretty much done with a K to go and I only got through because the fans lifted me through that last kilometer,” said Leipheimer. “I was 20-or-so seconds ahead of him at the start of the real climb and he took that back on me. That’s interesting. I’m a cycling nerd myself and I like to analyze that data, so that was interesting.”
Only in the time trial do officials count the hundredth of a second for a stage win. Judges decide photo finish mass start stages by millimeters. The .58 Leipheimer stole from Vande Velde on the lead-in to the base of Vail Pass won’t show up again in results unless a tie comes about in the overall classification.
That doesn’t negate Leipheimer’s stage win, however. He saw it differently.
“In my mind, I think Christian deserves this victory as much as I do,” said Leipheimer. “I’m happy to share this stage victory with him, you know? I couldn’t be more proud because I think he’s a great guy and he’s been doing this a long time.”
Both riders, very different men on very different equipment, finished on same time. But one of them, Leipheimer, rolled away the winner. They both said that with so many variables, there was no way to tell exactly where the different was made.
“Who knows; if I had put on an aero water bottle or thrown my bike across the line I could have made up that half second,” said Vande Velde. “If I had touched the brakes a little less in one of the corners or pedaled harder at the finish … I could go coulda woulda shoulda until happy hour is over.”