ASPEN, Colo. (VN) — After three days of racing, five Americans stand atop the general classification standings at the inaugural 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge, separated by 45 seconds with the decisive Vail time trial on the horizon.
With his aggressive, inspired riding over Independence Pass on stage 2, HTC-Highroad’s Tejay Van Garderen took the race lead from RadioShack’s Levi Leipheimer, who seized up on the cold, wet descent into Aspen, losing 45 seconds.
Alongside van Garderen at the front of the race was stage winner George Hincapie (BMC Racing) and Tom Danielson (Garmin-Cervélo), two men who had also finished near the top of the classification at both the prologue in Colorado Springs and the uphill stage 1 finish at Mount Crested Butte.
The trio of Americans in the front group was rewarded for its courage on the descent of Independence Pass. Hincapie moved into second overall, 16 seconds behind van Garderen, with Danielson third overall, 22 seconds back.
Leipheimer moved down to fourth, at 34 seconds, with Christian Vande Velde in fifth, at 0:45.
Hincapie’s BMC Racing teammate, Tour de France champion Cadel Evans, is the first non-American on the general classification, sitting sixth, 51 seconds behind van Garderen.
With all five American riders capable of producing a strong time trial on the 10-mile uphill course, the likelihood of an all-American final podium at this inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge grows stronger by the mile.
Beginning in Vail Village at 8,163 feet, the course delivers 1,500 feet of elevation gain, finishing at 9,643 feet. The same route was ridden by Tour de France winners Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault in the 1980s as part of the Coors Classic. Andy Hampsten held the record for 21 years; his time of 26:33, set during the 1987 Coors Classic, was broken at the 2008 Teva Mountain Games by both Ben Day (25:48) and Chris Baldwin (26:29).
The first half of the route is relatively flat, with the gradient increasing dramatically around mile 6 — meaning riders that go all-out on the flats may be in for a rude awakening as the gradient, and elevation, intensify.
Equipment choice will also play a factor. The majority of GC riders will ride standard time trial bikes, although Garmin’s Peter Stetina told VeloNews he intends to ride a Cervélo R3 road bike with clip-on bars. Those who run standard TT bikes will look to get their aerodynamic rigs as light as possible, meaning that unless there is a tailwind, riders will forgo rear disc wheels for lighter alternatives.
“It starts out flat but then kicks up hard,” Stetina said. “And then you’ve got the altitude to deal with. It’s going to suit a rider that’s not a pure climber, but not a time trial specialist, either — someone who can time trial on the flat but also climb with the best.”
Of the five Americans atop the GC standings, all but Hincapie are world-class climbers and time trialists. Hincapie is respectable at both disciplines, but lacks the power-to-weight ratio required to excel on high-mountain climbs. Hincapie said he hadn’t come to the race with the idea of a top finish at the USAPCC in mind, but the notion of a podium finish is starting to grow on him.
“Being so high up in overall, I’ll give it everything I have,” Hincapie said. “I didn’t come here with the intention of going for the overall, I wanted to win stage, and I’ve done that. I’ll try to stay as high up as I can. I haven’t seen the course, but I’ve heard it’s fast for an uphill course.”
Likewise, van Garderen, who lives with his fiancée Jessica Philips in Aspen, has not ridden the course.
“It seems like a course that doesn’t require a whole lot of thought because it doesn’t seem technical and it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of corners and a lot of turns, and there’s no real recovery sections,” van Garderen said. “So, it’s kind of like you just have to pick your pace and go with it, stay relaxed and stay focused. That’s about all you can do.”
Leipheimer acknowledged that van Garderen is perhaps his most formidable opponent, particularly given the 34-second lead he now holds over the RadioShack rider. “I’m confident, but I think Tejay is also strong,” Leipheimer said. “And he’s a great time trialist. It’s going to be difficult. I’d love to win the stage.”
Danielson also was hesitant to claim that he would be able to take the race lead in Vail. “If I was 100 percent confident, I would say yes, ‘I’m going to win tomorrow,’” Danielson said. “But I’m honestly not 100 percent confident. After today I feel better, for sure. Hopefully I’ll feel great. I will try as hard as I can and see what happens. But it is a very good course for me, and I hope to have a very good performance.”
Hincapie pointed to both van Garderen and Leipheimer as the men likely to wrestle over control of the GC following the Vail time trial.
“Tejay is riding great, he’s motivated, and he lives in Colorado,” Hincapie said. “I rode with him a bit last week, and he’s definitely motivated. He’ll be hard to beat. Levi is obviously riding super well, and he’s shown he is one of the strongest guys in the race. He was definitely the strongest in Crested Butte. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him return to the race lead.”
At this point, the one thing that would be a surprise would be a non-American rider standing atop the final podium in Denver on Sunday.