By Eddie Clark
(August 25, 2012) BOULDER, Colo.—Looking back, the last three days of racing at the USA Pro Challenge have provided bicycle racing fans with some of the most exciting racing and epic scenery that we've ever seen on our North American home soil. Each day attacks have gone in earnest, each day has ended with a deserving winner, end every day the support from fans all along the course has been absolutely amazing.
Going back to Thursday's Aspen to Beaver Creek stage, racers got the second part of a one-two high altitude sucker punch as they rolled out of Aspen and up the west side of the Cat 1 Independence Pass climb for their third trip above 12,000 feet in just two days. The rest of the day was spent above 9,000 feet with a mean one mile climb to the finish at the base of Beaver Creek that served as an unpleasant re-affirmation of how hard racing at altitude really is.
It was also the day for RadioShack's Jens Voigt to finally get some payback for his tireless work ethic and dedication to the sport that saw him capitalize from a solo attack on Independence Pass which lasted until the very finish. “When I got to Independence Pass, there were so many spectators cheering me on that I forgot the pain, and tried not to lose momentum on the descent,” said Voigt.
Of course, mention is due for the Columbians, who are earning a reputation as the honey badgers of professional cycling. Soon as the roads go in an upwards direction, the Columbians of the EPM-UNO team go on the attack because they just don't give a you-know-what. While their efforts haven't resulted in a victory yet, they sure make for exciting racing with their all or nothing attacks. With KOM contender Camilo Castiblanco never giving up on the climbers jersey, the Garmin-Sharp team has had to bear the brunt of the wrath of these honey badgers by constantly riding in defense mode for Tom Danielson's best climbers jersey.
Friday's ride from Breckenridge to a blazing fast romp through the downtown streets of Colorado Springs was another one for the books of exciting racing. As has been the case all week, attacks started in earnest at the very start of the race. For this 'sprinters' stage, the day's key break-away lasted until the next to last finishing circuit lap before it was shut down mostly by BMC and Garmin-Sharp.
“This was the day I had always marked, and the team did a lot of work to make sure that it all worked out,” said stage 5 winner Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp). “We spent a lot of energy today that we could’ve conserved, but I’m thankful they put their faith in me to win.”
Stage five was also another coveted day for BMC's Tejay van Garderen who got to don the race leaders jersey for the second day in a row. Riding in his home state, Tejay was quick to give thanks, “The crowds have been unbelievable, it’s really incredible how much the USA Pro Challenge has grown since last year.”
The much anticipated stage 6 from Golden to Boulder saw perhaps the largest crowds ever assembled for a bike race in North America. In Golden, crowds were once again ten to twelve people deep, and cheering so loud their roar could be heard for miles. And Boulder, well the scene was that of an all-out celebration of cycling and bike racing. An early break away of 14 contained plenty of heavy hitters and hometown favorites, and they wasted no time in working to establish a significant lead on their ascent to the first KOM atop Boulder Canyon in Nederland. Jens Voigt, Vincenzo Nibali, Rory Sutherland, and Tim Duggan were just a few notables of this break that had no representation by team BMC.
By the time they reached Lefthand Canyon, the break was whittled down to just seven with Voigt again going on the offensive to set up his teammate George Bennett who lit up the incredibly steep climb up Lee Hill Road to reach the second KOM in first place. Behind him, the breaks contenders would re-assemble as BMC, Garmin Sharp and Omega Pharma-QuickStep all bit down on their bars to get their gc leaders to the head of affairs.
At the base of Flagstaff, Boulder local Rory Sutherland seized the day with an exceptional ride up the last twisty climb to take his biggest win yet. “Flagstaff is such a beautiful mountain,” said Sutherland. “I can’t even describe the beauty of cycling in Colorado and how much it means to win in my hometown of Boulder. This is definitely the biggest win of my career.”
Behind him last year's Pro Challenge winner Levi Leipheimer also made his move in devastating fashion. Levi climbed through the throngs of thousands of cheering fans to put his gc rivals in a most uncomfortable position as he used this deciding stage to vault himself into the overall race lead. "Today was amazing, I saw all kinds of colorful characters up on Flagstaff and it was inspiring,” said Leipheimer. “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 one of the most beautiful days of cycling I’ve ever seen.”