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Sagan wins stage 1 of the 2013 USA Pro Challenge

Slovak champion wins Colorado opener after aggressive close to a short day of racing

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Peter Sagan won stage 1 of the USA Pro Challenge in Aspen, Colorado, on Monday. Sagan (Cannondale) won a bunch sprint to close a furious finale to the 97.6-kilometer circuit race between Aspen and Snowmass Village.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) was second and Kiel Reijnen (UnitedHealthcare) was third.

Sagan pulled on the overall leader’s jersey after the race’s opening stage. With no time bonuses on the line, the Slovak champion is tied on time with Van Avermaet and Reijnen.

“Maybe I was favorite for the people, but for me I’m very surprised I’m very happy. I should thank all my teammates because they were on the front,” said Sagan. “We are very happy when we take the victory for the team.”

The USA Pro Challenge continues Tuesday with the 202km second stage, from Aspen to Breckenridge. The route features the 22km climb of the Cat. 1 Independence Pass after just 8.8km of racing. Riders will face the Cat. 2 Hoosier Pass climb late in the stage before the 4km Moonstone Road ascent to the Cat. 3 Boreas Pass KOM leads to the technical, 4km descent to the finish.

A trio strikes at Snowmass

The peloton faced a short day in the saddle to open the third edition of the Colorado tour. Two climbs — the Cat. 4 Snowmass and McLain Flats ascents — marked each of three laps, though there were no KOM points on offer in the opening trip around the 32.2km circuit.

After the peloton snuffed out an early move that contained Craig Lewis (Champion System), Jeremy Vennell (Bissell), and Tyler Wren (Jamis-Hagens Berman), among others, Lewis countered and sprung the day’s long breakaway. Ian Burnett (Jelly Belly-Kenda) and Matthew Cooke (Jamis) followed and the trio built up an advantage that went out to almost 2:30.

Attacking his companions, Cooke took top points on the day’s first rated climb at Snowmass Village. Lewis followed through for second, with Wren grabbing a single point from the peloton.

“To me, I cannot sprint,” said Cooke. “It’s just something that will not happen. So I have to go for the KOM jersey. And yeah, that’s what I did.”

With Sagan in the race, the chasing duties fell to Cannondale and the Italian squad took up its post at the front. The escapees held an advantage of 1:40 over the top of the McLain Flats climb with 42km to go. Cooke took top points over the Cat. 4 summit after Lewis was unable to respond to an uptick in the pace near the top.

The trio came back together on the run-in to Aspen and Lewis took revenge when he launched a sharp acceleration to snag the sprint points at the start/finish. The gap was just 1:20 when the peloton followed through the line shortly after, Juraj Sagan leading a group of seven Cannondale riders, his brother, Peter, tucked in ahead of a line of BMC Racing men.

Cooke closed the gap and the leaders started the final lap intact.

Cannondale continued to push on at the front of the bunch, trimming the gap to 1:10 with 25km to go.

With 18km to go, the gap was down to 45 seconds.

As Cannondale began to slow at the front, Jens Voigt moved up the left gutter, bringing a group of RadioShack-Leopard riders to the front. Sagan and Co. faded to the right, down to just three riders.

Up ahead, the support cars came out of the gap and Burnett fell off the pace. With 14km to go, it was Lewis leading Cooke up the McLain Flats climb. When the pair reached the final, steep ramp, Lewis accelerated, but couldn’t shake Cooke, and then lost contact with the Jamis man. The race’s first climber’s jersey would be Cooke’s. Lewis’ efforts earned him the most aggressive rider award.

“It is great to start the race with a jersey and to get on the podium the first day,” Lewis said in a press release. “It is kind of my home state now. I love Aspen and I love the crowds in Colorado. I’m super motivated every day.”

On his first day back to serious racing since celebrating on the Champs Élysées, Tour de France champion Chris Froome (Sky) came unhitched on the climb. Froome had worked to keep his teammates near the front of the bunch and said later that he backed off to avoid going to deep ahead of Tuesday’s three-climb stage.

“My job today was helping the other guys get up to the front, once I’d done that I just took it a bit easier,” Froome said. “Tomorrow’s a big day and I want to be able to help again tomorrow, so there was no need to work any harder than necessary today.”

Cooke carried on alone at the front. He topped out on the climb with less than 20 seconds, Lachlan Morton (Garmin) leading the peloton over the summit. Defending champion Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Sharp) was among the riders in the last 10 wheels over the summit. There, too, was neo-pro Ian Boswell (Sky), riding his first race on American soil in his rookie season.

“I’m psyched. I’m very happy,” said Cooke, who pulled on the climber’s jersey after the stage. “We had guys in the very, very early move and that came back and the three of us went. It was a team strategy, for sure, to get somebody in the break, two in the break.”

The attack that nearly stuck

Four riders attacked over the top and Cooke was soon joined by Sagan, Carter Jones (Bissell), Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing), and RadioShack GC man George Bennett. Javier Megias Leal (Novo Nordisk) and Tom Zirbel (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) soon bridged, making seven riders at the front.

“We got rolling, I think, and everyone underestimated it right away. I heard a lot of guys heavy breathing and suffering in the peloton, which made me feel better, because honestly I didn’t feel great either. I rode into it as the day went on and again, I think everyone underestimated the altitude on the last lap,” Reijnen told VeloNews. “We went full gas and I was in good position going over hit. I expected the leadout to start there, but that was it; everybody ran out of power and that’s when the attacks started coming.”

Bennett accelerated from the group with a winding, 6.5km to go, Jones following. The former Bontrager-Livestrong teammates quickly took 10 seconds, Sagan leading the chase behind them. Sagan quickly lost interest, however, when the group looked to him to close the gap.

“I attacked … we were a good group with eight riders, or how many we were,” said Sagan. “When I was on the font nobody wanted to work with me. After, I said, ‘it’s better waiting for the group so I can do a good sprint,’ and I won.”

With Sagan and Bookwalter in the move, Cannondale and BMC had been satisfied to see the group go, but when they pair watched Bennett and Jones ride away, they were forced to work with Sky at the front.

“We were lucky to have Brent Bookwalter in there because it had Sagan and George Bennett and some dangerous guys,” BMC Racing assistant director Jackson Stewart said in a press release. “We had to have a lot of work from all of our guys — Julien Taramarcaz, Larry Warbasse, and Mathias Frank — to pull it back because they had almost 20 seconds at one point and it was getting down to the wire.”

Sky pulled the remnants of the peloton, at roughly 40 riders, up to the Sagan group, leaving only the leading duo ahead with 4km to go. Jones and Bennett held 20 seconds with 3.5km to go.

Michael Schär carried the peloton, including teammate Van Avermaet, across the gap on the flat run-in to Aspen. Jones held on until the 1km to go flag, but the Swiss champion rolled past him with 900 meters to go. Van Avermaet sat third wheel.

“Everybody did a good pull,” Van Avermaet said. “‘Michi’ [Schär] was incredibly strong. He did the last three kilometers on his own, to the last 300 meters almost. It was good to have him.”

Trying to launch Reijnen, Lucas Euser (UnitedHealthcare) jumped into the final two corners, but Van Avermaet surged up the left side of the road on the finish straight. Sagan shot across to the right off his wheel, drawing even with the Belgian in the final 300 meters and then putting his win in the race’s first stage to bed.

“I came through the last corner in second position and directly started my sprint because I didn’t know where Peter was,” Van Avermaet said. “In the last 150 meters, he came over me. But it was good to try it. I know Peter is a little bit stronger than me in the sprint. Second is a little bit disappointing after all of my second-place finishes in Utah, but it was good to try.”

Reijnen, winner of June’s Parx Casino Philly Cycling Classic and runner-up in the U.S. national road race, followed the pair across the line for third.

“Pretty much everything was perfect, except Lucas took [Alessanro Bazzana’s] role coming into the finish because ‘Baz’ was struggling with the altitude and the climbs,” said Reijnen. “It’s not often you see a climber step in like that and take the reins. The plan was to jump those guys with two corners to go and hope we caught them off guard. Lucas did a perfect job, and I did what I could, but those guys were just stronger. Losing’s never easy, but today those guys were just better riders today.”

Sagan, who has been in Aspen for two weeks, was cautious about looking forward to Tuesday’s second leg.

“I feel very good I think. For this I’m surprised,” he said. “Maybe tomorrow it will be harder. I am happy for today. And tomorrow, we see tomorrow.”

Velo editor in chief Neal Rogers contributed to this report.

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