Throughout the week of racing at the USA Pro Challenge, Tejay van Garderen of the BMC Racing team has shown that he’s the strongest rider at the race while the Garmin-Sharp squad would get the strongest team title. Their two respective leaders, van Garderen and Christian Vande Velde have been locked into a duel, tied on time for the past three stages while the yellow jersey has switched from one to another almost daily.
But on Saturday, one man Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) showed that he may be the smartest. The defending champion had been sticking close to the top of the GC, but never taking over. Going into the Queen Stage, he was sitting in fourth place, at eight seconds down.
Yellow jersey into the stage, van Garderen knew that Leipheimer was a danger man when he said on Friday after stage 5, “People keep forgetting about Levi. I think that’s a mistake. Out of Tom and Christian, he’s the better time trialist and the better climber. He’s only eight seconds behind. I’m really worried about him.”
The young BMC rider was right. Leipheimer waited for just the right moment on final climb up Flagstaff Mountain to pounce and drop the yellow jersey. He gritted his teeth and manage to climb himself into the yellow jersey in front of a huge crowd in Boulder.
“I was hoping for the best. I wanted to do something in Crested Butte (stage 2), but Tejay was stronger. I knew I had to save my strength for today. When I was nearing the finish, I just focused on giving it everything I had. Today was amazing, and one of the most beautiful days of cycling I’ve ever seen.” Leipheimer commented.
The 165.5-km stage followed the expected scenario, early break, yellow jersey’s team set the pace at the front of the field and fireworks on the bottom of the final climb. The early breakaway was still up the road with a two minute and 30 seconds gap. Leipheimer, van Garderen, Vande Velde were in a select group that also included also included Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) and best young rider Joe Dombrowski (Bontrager-Livestrong).
Said Leipheimer, “There were a few attacks from Nibali and Joe Dombrowski that were really effective — really strong attacks. I felt that Tejay was struggling a little bit. So, at three kilometers to go I attacked and gave everything I had.”
“I suffered a lot, especially with the altitude that has been a factor in this race. But I really tried to push, and I got a little bit of a gap between me, Christian and Tejay by the time I finished. I think today was a great stage. There were so many people on the road. I think this was the biggest day for USA cycling. I was amazed by the crowd that supported the riders and this race.”
When Leipheimer attacked, van Garderen said he tried to get on his wheel. “I tried pulling him back immediately. I didn’t want to let him go,” he said. “The guys who were with me were pretty much leaving it up to me to chase. Then a couple people started attacking, so I just started sitting on. I wasn’t getting a lot of help out there. In the last kilometer, it was just survival.”
Leipheimer crossed the line in fourth place, 45″ behind stage winner Rory Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare) but more importantly, he was 17 seconds ahead of Vande Velde and Dombrowski and 29 seconds ahead of van Garderen. More than enough time to take the yellow jersey.
But there’s still one stage to go, the 25-km individual time trial in Denver. Leipheimer now holds a nine-second lead on Vande Velde and 21 seconds on both van Garderen and Dombowski on the general classification.
In 2011, van Garderen lost the yellow jersey to Leipheimer in the time trial on an uphill 16-km course but this year the TT is on a flat and fast course with a short technical section. And van Garderen is one year older and off a very successful Tour de France.
Neither rider has given up.
“Anything can happen.” Leipheimer said. “I’ve won some big time trials, but Tejay is coming of age; he’s probably the best Grand Tour rider we have right now. He and Christian Van Velde are both great at time trials; it’s daunting. But there’s no doubt that today’s race will give me some extra motivation.”
With the current standings identical to those of the final results of last year’s race, van Garderen said “it’s possible” to make up time and take back the yellow jersey. “It’s going to take an incredible ride, but I think I can still win this race,” he said.
Did experience trump strength at the USA Pro Challenge? We’ll know the answer to that question in a few hours.
The racing starts at 1:00 pm MT (start times), see How to Follow USA Pro Challenge via Social Media, Web, TV