ASPEN, Colorado (VN) — His teammates Tyler Farrar and Tom Danielson have won a stage each. Christian Vande Velde leads the overall at the USA Pro Challenge after stage 3. But more than any of them, David Zabriskie is the man of the race thus far and his Garmin-Sharp squad isn’t afraid to say it.
“He’s a bad, bad man and I’m lucky he’s on my team,” Danielson said on Wednesday after squeaking out a solo win here. “I owe my victory to him and the team, for sure.”
Zabriskie has made the breakaway each of the race’s three opening stages. He worked so hard on Monday’s opener to Telluride that he vomited on the bike after falling off the pace of the breakaway that contained Danielson and teammate Peter Stetina. He again made the move on Tuesday — after joking on Twitter that he had successfully woken up that morning — and pulled for Alex Howes to the finish at Mount Crested Butte.
But it was Zabriskie’s work on Wednesday to pull an unwilling breakaway to the base of Independence Pass in a strong headwind and set up Danielson for a late attack that stands out most strikingly.
“He just completely buried himself for Tom,” said Vande Velde, who assumed the overall leader’s jersey. “You can’t say enough about guys like that that are doing the lion’s share and holding off a team on his own.”
Zabriskie found his way into the early breakaway on Wednesday ahead of three categorized climbs — two of them topping out above 12,000 feet in elevation — and when Danielson jumped into the group, it was up to the seven-time national time trial champion to pace the race’s top climber to the base of Independence Pass.
With a strong wind blowing down the Arkansas River Valley before the six-man breakaway turned toward the final climb, Zabriskie did the bulk of the day’s work late, hunching low, his forearms pressed against his handlebars.
“Today there was a lot of wind and this guy, Dave Zabriskie, pulled like a freight train for 70K in a giant valley,” said Danielson. “It felt like we were going nowhere and it felt like there was no hope in the world. Our breakaway guys said, ‘I’m not going to pull, this isn’t going to work.’”
With the peloton bearing down, 2:15 behind them, Danielson said that even Zabriskie began to lose hope. But the team’s sports science director, Robby Ketchell, who was driving the Garmin car with the leaders, argued that the move would work.
“Dave started to think it wasn’t going to work either,” said Danielson. “Robby Ketchell in the car was convinced that it was going to work, so hats off to him for convincing both me and Dave to keep going in the valley.”
Zabriskie kept on the throttle, pegging the breakaway’s advantage at above two minutes until he came unhitched on the climb. Danielson eventually summited Independence Pass alone, 32.4km from the finish, and just barely held off a chasing group of 26 GC contenders and stage hunters.
“He has been able to focus on (the team’s objective to be aggressive) and he’s very, very successful at speed management, not just effort management,” Ketchell told VeloNews. “Once you carry that momentum from one day to the next, he’s been able to apply that.”
Vande Velde said that Zabriskie, his close friend and longtime teammate, has come to Colorado with more enthusiasm than usual. Danielson said he couldn’t let Zabriskie down.
“Poor old Dave Zabriskie, he’s been in the break every day, and I’ve got to say, he was responsible for this. I owe him a lot for today,” said Danielson. “That was going through my mind. He puked on the first day, and he was puking today, pretty much, and he didn’t have a day off yesterday, and I thought, ‘I can’t let old Dave down,’ so I gave it everything.”
Like Danielson, Garmin boss Jonathan Vaughters credited Zabriskie for the stage win, the team’s second in three days.
“It’s unbelievable. He barfed day one, he went so hard,” Vaughters told VeloNews. “He has truly made the race. And that’s what kept Tom out there and kept Tom in a position.”
With Vande Velde in yellow and Danielson in polka dots, Zabriskie may get a break from the breakaway on Thursday. But even if he does, he’ll swap his spot at the front of the attack to a spot at the front of the peloton and keep earning the MVP nod from his race-leading Garmin squad.