Editor’s note: To close out the year, we are counting down the top 14 stories of 2014. VeloNews and Velo magazine’s editorial staff voted this piece as one of our favorite articles of the year.
TORREY, Utah (VN) – First he was going to do it; it was a sure thing. A well-deserved win was virtually in the bag for BMC Racing’s Michael Schär as he crested Boulder Mountain with nearly a five-minute lead after dropping his break mate, Hincapie rider Joey Rosskopf.
“On top of the climb I felt very good,” Schär said.
Then, the sure thing — it wasn’t. What was this? He wasn’t pedaling. He’s cramping; he’s definitely struggling. He’s on the descent, but he isn’t pedaling. He’s losing huge chunks of time.
“Everywhere cramping, I couldn’t even pedal anymore!” Schär told VeloNews after the stage. “It was exactly at 15km to go when I knew [I was really hurting]. I was too tired to see 15 and 10. I couldn’t see the difference anymore. Then I saw 10 and I thought, ‘F—ck, it has to be five!’ But it was 10 and then I really realized I have to concentrate.”
Next it was touch and go. Rosskopf was closing fast. His speed seemed to be double that of the tall, lanky Swiss rider on the descent. Rosskopf was going to do it. His career will be changed, people said. He’s going to fly past Schär and take a huge win with that type of speed.
Then, suddenly, the peloton was on Rosskopf. The crowds at the finish line sighed with disappointment. Could the peloton now close it down and time the catch of Schär to perfection? It was too close to call.
The last corner came at one kilometer to go.
Will he or won’t he? Could he or can’t he? The gathered soigneurs and race staff watching the television monitors at the finish line all yelled at the screen, anxiously making their predictions: “He’ll get caught!” “He’s going to make it!” The view on screen pulled back, the gap from Schär to the charging peloton was… just enough.
Meekly, Schär raised his arms, and hours of agony turned into instant ecstasy.
“I was pretty confident on top of [Boulder Mountain], but you never know, you never get it, until you get it. Then, with 500 meters to go I had another cramp. I thought, ‘This can’t be true now.’ They [caught] me on the line but I think, sometimes, there is somebody above us who looks out for us.”
Schär held on to the slimmest of winning margins, holding off a charging reduced field to win after 130 undulating miles through the iconic Hell’s Backbone region of Utah, along Highway 12 from Panguitch to Torrey.
After dropping off the pace on the climb to Boulder Mountain — “Him on a bad day is as good as me on most days on the climbs,” Rosskopf said — the young Hincapie rider pulled back the cramping Swiss rider on the descent, coming within 25 seconds before he was finally caught with just 3km to go.
The chasm of emotion between victory and defeat was as wide as the Escalante Canyon that cut through the surrounding sandstone landscape.
“If you never try, you never win. A rider like me, I’m not a sprinter, I’m not a super climber,” Schär said. “I have to win my races in breakaways. And today was an especially hard breakaway because 130 miles is a long way, especially with a lot of ups and downs. It was not an easy day.”
Schär is tall, lanky, a former national champion of Switzerland, a seasoned veteran of the WorldTour. Rosskopf is thicker, shorter, a young rider on a young development squad, just beginning his rise through the domestic racing scene.
Schär finished the Tour de France less than two weeks ago. The form was, he said, “very good.”
Rosskopf (Hincapie Development Team), 24, just finished the Cascade Cycling Classic. His form was also good – he was sixth in the prologue, fourth in the time trial, fourth in the circuit race, and fourth overall – but the measuring stick was smaller than the world’s biggest race.
The two are on opposite ends of the cycling career spectrum. After stage 2 of the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, they were also on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, of agony and ecstasy.
“I went to bed yesterday and looked at the route and said, ‘This is going to be my day.’ But the orginal plan was to attack over the last climb, not at kilometer zero [laughs],” Schär said.
On the other side of the coin, Rosskopf began his day just hoping to do some work for the team, not himself.
“I was really hoping that [KOM leader and teammate] Robin Carpenter was going to end up in the move with me,” he said. “But that didn’t happen so I kind of just ended up taking the KOM points. I got the first [KOM] hoping he was going to maybe bridge up. But I thought I ought to get something out of the move.”
Eventually, after the two shed their breakmates, they were united in their attempt to outlast the peloton.
But their emotions after the stage were anything but parallel.
“It was the top, the [hardest day of my career], I think,” Schär said. “It was a really nice win because it was so long, so hard.”
For Rosskopf, what began as work for the team ended in personal defeat.
“It would have been career-changing. I think second on the stage would have been career-changing. But I wasn’t so concerned with whether I was catching Schär because there was only so much I could do – just to go as fast as possible. I was just trying to stay away from the field. I made it to 3km to go, which was heartbreaking. I did what I could.”