Youth meets experience on Flagstaff, and experience wins — for now

One pivotal attack and the USA Pro Challenge will go down to the wire in Denver

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

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BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — Twenty-one seconds. The time difference between this afternoon’s leader, Levi Leipheimer, and Tejay van Garderen, this morning’s leader. It’s no time at all. It’s eternity. The gap between one generation and another.

Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) went all in on the Flagstaff Mountain climb, a roiling sea of fans and steep switchbacks that was one of the most epic days in American racing history.

With an attack reminiscent of the dig he put in on Utah’s Empire Pass just weeks ago, Leipheimer ripped the yellow jersey from his younger rival. And Garmin-Sharp’s Christian Vande Velde limited his losses to Leipheimer and beat van Garderen to the line, setting the stage for the race’s final day in Denver — a flat, 9.5-mile individual time trial with plenty of turns.

It’s just nine seconds from Leipheimer to Vande Velde, with van Garderen (BMC Racing) third at 21 seconds and 21-year-old Joe Dombrowski (Bontrager-Livestrong) fourth on the same time. Andreas Klöden (RadioShack-Nissan) is 26 seconds back.

It all came down to one pivotal attack that Leipheimer made count. He grabbed Dombrowksi’s wheel when the Bontrager rider made a move midway on the Flagstaff climb and noticed van Garderen didn’t respond. Leipheimer laid his cards on the table and rode away. He quickly opened a gap and, when all was said and done, owned 21 seconds on van Garderen, who fell to third with less that 10 miles of road left to race in Colorado.

“That was the crux of the race and the most telling moment because Dombrowski was kind of attacking, pulling, he was really going for it, one moment he gave it a go and Tejay didn’t follow him,” Leipheimer said

“He looked strong, and I figured, well, if Tejay wasn’t jumping on his wheel right away … that means he’s hurting and he’s starting to gamble and starting to key off Christian (Vande Velde) and myself.”

So the cagey veteran dropped back for a moment, then went full gas.

“It was just go for broke because there’s not much road left in this USA Pro Challenge,” he said. No, there isn’t. Not even 10 miles of road left, to be exact.

Van Garderen wouldn’t comment immediately after the finish. Vande Velde, who’s been a model of consistency in Colorado, said he knew the race would come down to precious seconds. Whatever happens now, it’s going to be earned against the clock in Denver.

“That’s gonna be like, everyone at zero, it’s gonna be pretty crazy, I mean, like I said in the press conference everything’s gonna be nickel-and-dimed until Sunday,” Vande Velde said.

“I feel great, I mean, this was actually what I was most scared of and I think I passed that with flying colors, much more than I ever thought I would, so tomorrow just go as hard as I can … race of truth.”

Van Garderen, meanwhile, thinks he can still win this bike race, and his top-five finish at this year’s Tour means the contenders believe he can, too.

“It’s going to take an incredible ride, but I think I can still win this race,” he said through a team release.

Leipheimer is an exceptional time trialist late in stage races. And if anyone is to grab yellow from the defending champion in Colorado, it will take an absolutely sterling ride in Denver.

“I’m extremely motivated,” Leipheimer said. “And this jersey will give me some extra power tomorrow.”

In Denver, on Sunday, every second will count.


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