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BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. (VN) — The first decisive moment for the general classification of the 2013 USA Pro Challenge came not on the mighty Independence Pass, or the formidable climb over Hoosier Pass, but rather on the steep 15-percent slopes of Moonstone Road with 4 kilometers remaining on stage 2, from Aspen to Breckenridge.
With just 200 meters left on the climb — and three dangerous riders off the front of a splintered peloton — race leader Peter Sagan (Cannondale) attacked.
Behind, Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp) chased, with Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) riding on his wheel. When van Garderen realized that Danielson could not — or would not — match the pace, the BMC rider jumped. Van Garderen latched on to Sagan over the top of Boreas Pass and rode the Cannondale rider’s momentum to an 18-second gap over Danielson.
“When Sagan went, I saw Tom Danielson, he looked like he was struggling, so I said, ‘let’s do this,’” van Garderen said at the finish line. “I went for it, and gained 18 seconds over my biggest rival in the race.”
Ahead, BMC’s Mathias Frank took the stage win, while Garmin’s Lachlan Morton took the overall lead. Frank later acknowledged that he’d jumped into the late breakaway to mark Morton; the riders are now separated by two seconds.
“We were riding so as not to affect Lachie’s gap,” Danielson said. “And when Sagan went with 200m to go to the top of the climb, of course I couldn’t follow Sagan, with his 200-meter punch. Tejay was super strong. He came around me and got on Sagan over the top. I was just behind, but they rode away together on the descent. There’s really nothing more to say about it. Tejay looks extremely strong. He’s the favorite now, for sure. We’re in the jersey, but of everyone in the peloton, he is the strongest guy, there’s not much more to say than that.”
And just like that, after only two stages, the GC battle at the USA Pro Challenge became a virtual two-team contest.
Garmin holds the race lead, with two riders in the top-six overall. BMC has two riders in the top four spots, with Van Garderen 11 seconds behind Morton and 18 seconds ahead of Danielson.
“Today was a good day, we put Lachie in the break, and BMC had Mathias as well, so that was sort of a neutralizing situation,” Danielson said. “Lachie got away, they came back to him, then Mathias went away, and Lachie stayed close. It’s nice for Lachie to have the jersey. It’s great for the team, it’s our home race, it’s a big race for us, and any opportunity to put someone from the team in the jersey is a good opportunity.”
Van Garderen leads other GC riders by even greater margins: Darwin Atapuma (Colombia) by 24 seconds, Rory Sutherland (Saxo-Tinkoff) by 30 seconds, and Joe Dombrowski (Sky) by 53 seconds.
Considering the 2011 Pro Challenge was decided by 11 seconds, and last year’s race was decided by 21 seconds, it’s likely there are now less than 20 riders that have a realistic chance at winning — and, really, only six. Four of those six ride for either Garmin or BMC.
So which team has the advantage?
Morton, a talented climber and first-year pro, also wore the leader’s jersey at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah after taking an impressive solo stage win, but he had a bad day on the race’s queen stage and faltered on the final climb to the Snowbird ski area.
Asked if he believed he could defend the jersey all the way to Denver, Morton was pragmatic. “For me, this is my first year as pro, this is already an achievement in itself. I think with the team we have, there are some stronger guys there. For myself, the goal is to have someone from our team on the podium, whichever way we can facilitate that.”
Frank has finished in the top-five overall this year at the Amgen Tour of California and the Tour de Suisse, though he said after his stage win that he didn’t believe he was well-enough acclimatized to Colorado’s high elevation. He acknowledged that freewheeling across the finish line likely cost him the race lead. “You can’t have everything,” he said. “I have a stage win here and I’m happy with this. I didn’t really know it was coming down to a few seconds. Tactically, it is maybe not a bad thing.”
Van Garderen won the Amgen Tour of California in May, his first professional stage race win, but had an unremarkable Tour de France. He’s twice been on the podium at the Pro Challenge, finishing second last year to Garmin’s Christian Vande Velde.
Asked how he had felt during two days of racing, van Garderen just smiled, answering, “I feel good.”
Danielson also had a poor showing in July, but came out swinging in August, winning the Tour of Utah, also raced at altitude, by a wide margin just 10 days ago. Danielson finished seventh overall, with a stage win, at last year’s Pro Challenge. He took fourth overall at the inaugural race in 2011 — one spot behind van Garderen.
“If I were Tejay, I’d be feeling confident and comfortable,” Danielson said. “We’d all love to have 18 seconds. He’s in a great situation. I’m definitely envious of him, but at the same time, Lachie is ahead of him. He’s still got to drop Lachie. He’s not in the jersey yet, but he looks very strong.”
Likewise, van Garderen pointed to Danielson as his biggest threat.
“Garmin is strong, and Danielson is looking the strongest of the Garmin guys,” he said. “He’s the main competitor, I think.”
With stages 6 and 7 unlikely, at least on paper, to shake up the general classification, BMC and Garmin have two more road stages to execute tactics before Friday’s decisive stage 5 uphill time trial in Vail.
Wednesday’s stage 3, from Breckenridge to Steamboat Springs, is a mostly downhill affair, with the exception of Rabbit Ears Pass, which tops out 34km from the finish line. It’s a course profile that could see a large group come to the line together, or could see a fierce GC battle on Rabbit Ears Pass.
Further confusing matters, on Tuesday night, Garmin team manager Jonathan Vaughters posted on Twitter, “I wonder if BMC thinks we’ll actually defend the race lead tomorrow?”
Stage 4, from Steamboat to Beaver Creek, is the most difficult stage of the race, with four categorized climbs, including the steep Bachelor Gulch climb, with a summit only 12km from the line, followed by the uncategorized finishing pitch into Beaver Creek.
“Of course it’s bike racing, anything can happen, but when I look at the GC, it’s really clear, there are only a handful of guys in contention for the win, and even the podium, and it’s only stage 2,” Danielson said. “We’ve got some really hard stages coming up. The Vail uphill TT is decisive, and the queen stage, into Beaver Creek, will be very hard. Tejay is in the driver’s seat. He should be feeling confident.”