DENVER, Colorado (VN) — Tejay, Tom … Tsvetkov?
While Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) comfortably defended his title at the USA Pro Challenge, and Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp) put in a valiant effort to come second in his beloved home race, Sergey Tsvetkov, of the comparatively minuscule Jelly Belly team, rode to an impressive — and for some, a head-scratching — third place overall against a truly world-class crop of riders and teams.
All in a day’s riding for the soft-spoken, mellow Moldovan (who races with Romanian citizenship).
“I try to race everyday like it’s another day; I don’t think about the GC and that’s probably how I get to be third now,” he told VeloNews. “Because if you try to stay, hold in GC, you don’t have an aggressive [mindset], and I just try to treat every day like a new day.”
Many fans were asking, “Who is this guy with the jelly beans on his kit?” Others, including his two WorldTour companions on the podium, weren’t at all surprised to see Tsvetkov standing beside them in downtown Denver.
“I’m not actually surprised. He’s put in some really good rides; he’s two-time national time trial champion,” van Garderen said. “I was just thinking it was a matter of time before he had a breakthrough ride. The whole time we were looking at the results sheet, we kind of kept saying, ‘There’s all the obvious guys like Danielson and Majka,’ but his name kept popping up, like, we should maybe keep an eye on him.”
If you are a scholar of the Pro Challenge, however, you know that Tsvetkov showed signs of serious talent years prior, riding for Exergy, on the stage from Durango to Telluride, in 2012. That day, he joined a breakaway with Danielson and current Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali (then riding for Liquigas-Cannondale), among others. Danielson, for one, took notice.
“My first experience with Sergey was in 2012 on the stage from Durango to Telluride, when we were throwing bombs out, left, right, and center. ‘Who is this Exergy guy there who was going pull for pull?’ I was like, ‘Who are you, man? When are you gonna blow?’ And then I started to freak,” Danielson said. “We had Nibali there, Stetina and myself, and Serghei, and I kept looking at him and asking, ‘Who are you?’ And he’s a really nice guy. Ever since I’ve been following him — and I saw this year that he won Cascade criterium, on top of the time trial and all this other stuff — and I thought, ‘Uh oh.’ I’ve seen him up there the last couple of days and said this is gonna be trouble.”
It’s true that Tsvetkov has had an impressive rise through the U.S. domestic scene after moving over from the Tusnad cycling team in Romania. He won the time trial at the Tour of the Gila and finished 12th during the Folsom time trial at the Tour of California. Tsvetkov crashed hard during stage 1 of the Tour de Beauce in June, but persevered to finish third overall in the Canadian UCI 2.2 race.
Tsvetkov won the overall at the Cascade Cycling Classic this July for a second straight year, after taking two stage wins in the time trial and criterium. He nabbed three top-10 finishes at the Tour of Utah earlier this month in preparation for the more gradual climbs of Colorado that he prefers.
But his performance at the Pro Challenge, where he finished third on the climbing stage 3 to Monarch Mountain (20 seconds down on stage winner van Garderen), third in the sprint the next day on the circuit race through Colorado Springs (in the same time as stage winner Elia Viviani of Cannondale), and third in the stage 6 Vail time trial (losing 1:08 to stage winner van Garderen), was a display of his comprehensive skillset.
“If you ask any of the Continental managers who have seen him race over the past four years, this is not a project that happened overnight,” said Danny van Haute, director of the Jelly Belly team. “He’s been in the States the past four years — two years with Exergy and two years with us — and we’ve seen his progress every year: 10 percent better, 20 percent better. And now it’s at that point that he needs to graduate.”
Not surprisingly, the calls from WorldTour teams are coming left and right. Though he hasn’t made any decision yet, nor signed any contracts, his prospects continue to rise after his display in his adopted home state of Colorado, where he has lived in Golden since 2012.
“The calls started coming a few weeks before the start of this race. And they’ve … accelerated [laughs],” said van Haute.
The move to the WorldTour would mean a reevaluation for Tsvetkov, something he’s well aware of.
“I understand that if I move up, I will work hard for other guys because there are a lot of strong guys,” he said. “I’m ready for that. Now, I have opportunities to be a leader on Jelly Belly, and they really support me well, the guys were riding amazing. I’m just happy now to be a GC contender. But I’m looking everyday as a new day. If I have a sprint day, I try for sprint. If I have to climb, I will climb. It looks like I can do almost everything …”
Indeed it does. Especially in the thin air atop Monarch Pass where he beat the high-altitude specialist Danielson, among a slew of other more well known climbers. It all had to do with a new mindset that saw him being patient rather than persistent.
“That [stage] was huge for me. Just awesome,” he said. “My first goal was just to stay in the first group. In the end, I realized, ‘Wow, everyone is tired, I’m not fresh [either], probably those guys just attack each other too early and now I have a chance.”
On the back of that performance, he continued to ride quietly and intelligently, conserving energy whenever possible, learning to ride with reserve, and trusting that the hard work that he had put into the sport would repay him with results. It was the opposite approach to years past when he looked to bring attention to the team with breakaway efforts and stage wins.
“I am glad that the work that I have done has paid off, because when you’re working hard, you try to train well, sleep, ride, and everything, and get this result,” he said. “It’s not so much a surprise; everything is working. Everything is possible.”