ASPEN, Colorado (VN) — Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp) soloed to victory just seconds ahead of a ravening chase on Wednesday in stage 3 of the USA Pro Challenge.
The mountains leader was the last man standing from a large break that came to grief over the course of the 130.6-mile stage from Gunnison to Aspen, which took in the daunting ascents of Cottonwood and Independence passes before plummeting into the glitzy ski town of Aspen.
Danielson took two minutes’ advantage over the top of 12,095-foot Independence Pass, but race leader Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing Team) fought back on the descent, and as Danielson raced into Aspen the yellow-jersey group was breathing down his neck.
But Danielson gutted it out, grinding up the final short climb to the finish just a heartbeat ahead of Damiano Caruso (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Jakob Fuglsang (RadioShack-Nissan). He didn’t even have time to salute the crowd.
Alas, he would not take the yellow jersey — and van Garderen would not keep it. Christian Vande Velde (Garmin), who crossed ninth at two seconds down, assumed the overall lead, tied on time with the BMC man. Ivan Rovny (RusVelo) sits third overall at six seconds.
Defending champion Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) sits fourth at eight seconds.
“Getting yellow was the last thing on my mind today. I didn’t even think about the count-back and the bonuses,” said Vande Velde. “The big thing was causing more mayhem than last year (and) to set Tom up on Cottonwood.”
Added Danielson: “I bet nobody thought it would work, but we thought it would work.”
An early 18-man break saw Camilo Castiblanco (EPM-UNE) and Exergy teammates Serghei Tvetcov and Matt Cooke lead over the 9,526-foot Taylor Park KOM. The eight points Castiblanco collected put him into the virtual mountains jersey, and the break had three minutes on the field.
But that escape did not last, and a reshuffling took place as the race approached 12,126-foot Cottonwood Pass. Next to take the fore were Danielson and Dave Zabriskie (Garmin-Sharp); Fabio Aru (Astana); Arkimedes Arguelyes Rodriges (RusVelo), Pengda Jiao (Champion System); Jeff Louder (UnitedHealthcare); Mike Friedman (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies); and Francisco Colorado (EPM-UNE).
After the Cottonwood KOM the break had boiled down to Danielson and Zabriskie; Aru; Louder; Friedman; and Colorado.
Aru and Friedman fell back next, followed by Zabriskie and Louder, leaving Danielson and Colorado out front to take on Independence Pass.
The two had just under three minutes over the BMC-led bunch with 27 miles to go, and Danielson, clad in the red jersey of the mountains leader, was doing the bulk of the work with an eye toward keeping it.
There was another jersey at stake, too: Danielson sat 11th on GC, only 12 seconds off the lead of van Garderen, with Colorado 19th overall 21 seconds down, and it seemed that the two could find themselves sitting first and second once the times were tallied down in Aspen.
Back in the bunch, Van Garderen had just two teammates left — and Lucas Euser (SpiderTech-C10), 10th overall at 12 seconds back, had a dig out of the group, trying to reach the two leaders. EPM’s Freddy Orlando Piamonte Rodriguez followed and latched onto Euser’s wheel, but their move went nowhere.
Ahead, Danielson had shed Colorado and was driving alone to the KOM, charging through the narrow lane left to him by the screaming crowd of spectators. Over the top he went for the downhill run into Aspen, the mountains jersey well in hand — plus more than two minutes’ advantage over the yellow-jersey group.
Fresh out of teammates, Van Garderen took charge of his own defense on the 50-mph descent, in a small group with Vande Velde; Chris Baldwin (Bissell); Chris Horner and Matt Busche (RadioShack-Nissan); Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale); and defending champion Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), and Danielson’s advantage began to dwindle to 90 seconds with 15 miles remaining.
The peloton swelled as the road dropped, and van Garderen once again found himself with a teammate to help drive the pursuit.
Ten miles from the line Danielson had less than a minute on the chase. Five miles further on he still had most of it, and the Garmin team car pulled alongside to urge him to greater effort.
Danielson was down in the drops and driving, but the bunch had inched closer, to just 30 seconds with three miles remaining.
With two miles remaining Danielson was looking over his shoulder, switching from one side of the road to the other as race officials ordered vehicles out of the gap.
And suddenly, van Garderen found himself a whole bunch of new friends — riders who thought they could win the stage.
With one mile remaining the field was right behind Danielson, and going under the red kite they were closing in fast. But Danielson refused to surrender — he hit the final short rise to the finish, glanced over his right shoulder and drove for the line, just beating the pursuit to the finish.
Danielson was delighted with his ride, even if he fell short of adding the leader’s jersey to his haul from the Colorado tour.
“We came up with some crazy plans,” he said. “Our team’s pretty strong here, so it’s pretty fun to pull it off. Today there was a lot of wind and this guy, Dave Zabriskie, pulled like a freight train for 70K in a giant valley.”
Vande Velde added his praise to Danielson’s.
“I’m incredibly proud of the team and what we did today and before today, from day one,” he said. “Nothing’s changed over the day with Tejay and I. We’re on the same time.
“The biggest thing is that we got a stage win today and Tom’s comfortable in the mountains jersey now for a while.”
Indeed, Danielson solidified his grip on the mountains jersey as teammate Vande Velde moved into yellow. Caruso took over the sprint jersey, Dombrowski remained in the best-young-rider jersey and Colorado was elected most aggressive.
Editor’s note: Stay tuned for more from the 2012 USA Pro Challenge.