ASPEN, Colo. (VN) — Twenty miles downhill in the rain turned the 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge on its head Wednesday and with two climbs topping out over 12,000 feet, no one expected it. HTC-Highroad’s 23-year-old American Tejay Van Garderen was as surprised as anyone when he ended up the biggest winner, taking enough time on a dispatched Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) to pull the overall leader’s jersey in Aspen.
“There’s no big summit finish or big day that’s really going to separate a lot of time so you have to take time wherever you can,” said Van Garderen. “All due respect to Levi, he’s not the strongest descender. He sometimes loses his nerve a little bit; that’s one of my strong suits. I can … I have balls. So I just went for it and when I saw we had a gap, we just drove it.”
The run-in from the summit of Independence Pass, at 12,095 feet, to Aspen, at 7,890 feet, didn’t take much billing before the race as a decisive point for the general classification. With a tough, uphill finish in Mount Crested Butte on Tuesday, two monstrous climbs on Wednesday and the uphill time trial in Vail Thursday, it was the inclining gradient and the thin air that most expected to determine the overall. The rain changed all of that on the technical, narrow descent.
When Rafael Infantino (EPM-UNE) attacked high on the Independence Pass climb, followed by Peter Stetina (Garmin-Cervélo), the race looked to be opening up. Knowing the long approach to the finish, however, it appeared as though a large group would arrive at the finish with Leipheimer among the riders leading the chase. When Van Garderen bridged across to Infantino with Leipheimer and Christian Vande Velde, the GC heavies started swinging hard.
After they crested the pass as four, George Hincapie (BMC Racing) pulled a group of 20 riders back to the leaders. Then the rain hit and Leipheimer found himself in trouble.
“The group came back, the rain started to fall and man, it got cold really quickly,” Leipheimer told VeloNews. “I was trying to follow guys like George. George is really fast on the downhill and he sort of split the group. I was doing my best, but at the same time I was shivering and they just rode away.”
Leipheimer lost contact with the six leaders. Behind him, riders like Rory Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare), water from the road obscuring his vision, didn’t know what was happening.
“We were going pretty hard, and it was wet,” said Sutherland. “Nobody knew what was going on. What I heard was that one of the motorbikes crashes, so we didn’t have any time gaps or anything the whole way down. We were completely in the dark the whole way down the mountain.”
Half-a-minute ahead, Hincapie was riding for the stage win, which he eventually took in a two-up sprint against Van Garderen. The American veteran entered the race without GC ambitions, but vaulted into second when he bested a brave group that included Danielson, Janier Acevedo (Gobernacion de Antioquia-Indeportes Antiquia), Eduard Beltran (EPM) and Bruno Pires (Leopard-Trek).
When Van Garderen and Danielson saw the yellow jersey of Leipheimer falter high on the descent, they took their opportunity.
“I attacked, I took risks in the corners,” said Danielson. “Then my legs really started to come around and I got in the moment of the race and I just drilled it with Tejay all the way down the descent as fast as we could go.”
When VeloNews asked him after the stage when he had last taken time on a descent, Danielson said, “Never.”
Van Garderen is extremely familiar with the descent to Aspen. His fiancé, former national TT champion Jessica Phillips, lives in the town and he reconed the finale a number of times since May. He didn’t expect the time gaps to be 45 seconds at the finish, but the rain is something no one — save for maybe Danielson — truly planned on.
“I didn’t imagine it would be raining, but once I saw it was wet I knew it would be hard for Levi to control,” said Hincapie, who rode the descent a week ago while on vacation with his son.
“If you lose your nerve you can lose minutes. If you’re confident in the corners, you can gain time,” said Van Garderen. “It started pouring rain and it seemed like whoever had the nerve to take the corners fast in the rain ended up in the front group and some of the guys who were a little bit timid didn’t get back.”
Leipheimer was among the riders less familiar with the downhill finish. While he played the finish climb in Mount Crested Butte perfectly, Leipheimer admitted that he misread Wednesday’s final descent.
“It’s been a couple years since I did the descent,” he said. “I thought there was more flat at the bottom.”
The yellow jersey found too little room to make up his disadvantage once the chase group reached the floor of the Roaring Fork Valley and before they knew it, Hincapie was across the line, arms raised, with Van Garderen on his wheel.
Van Garderen, best young rider in May’s Tour of California, pulled on his first leader’s jersey as a professional in Aspen.
“It started to rain and I thought, ‘You know, I came here to do a good race and to be quite honest, I’ve been disappointed with myself the last few days, how I’ve been racing,” said Danielson, who rode the descent earlier this summer. “I knew the corners, I knew where I had to brake and didn’t have to brake. I was really lucky it was raining, too.”