Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) collected the final yellow jersey of the 2014 USA Pro Challenge on Sunday as Alex Howes (Garmin-Sharp) won stage 7, a 78-mile leg from Boulder to Denver.
It was a narrow victory for Howes, whose throw at the line made the difference in a photo finish with friend and training partner Kiel Reijnen (UnitedHealthcare). It was less so for van Garderen, who took the overall by more than 90 seconds over Tom Danielson (Garmin), and finished sixth in the finale.
“The team lit it up for me over Lookout, had me totally pegged the whole way over, but it’s kind of hard to drop me on my home mountain,” said an emotional Howes. “And they kept it [going] all the way to the line.”
“I really can’t emphasize enough how much guys like Phil Gaimon and Janier Acevedo and Caleb [Fairly] and even Tommy Danielson … those guys are just absolute weapons and they fired today. This is everything to me, everything.”
The break of the day went early, and it was a big one, containing Michael Rogers (Tinkoff-Saxo); Jens Voigt (Trek Factory Racing); Fairly; Cameron Wurf (Cannondale); Adam Phelan (Drapac); Jonny Clarke (UnitedHealthcare); Javia Megias (Novo Nordisk); Hugh Carthy (Rapha-Condor); Jesse Anthony (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies); Johnathan Freter (Jelly Belly); Tiago Machado (NetApp-Endura); and Ruben Zepuntke (Bissell Development).
Wurf dropped off as the others quickly built a gap of two minutes en route to Golden for the trip up Lookout Mountain, though it shed a few more riders along the way as Voigt and Rogers drove the pace, with only Machado, Megias, Zeputke and Carthy able to stay in their slipstream.
Behind, Garmin-Sharp was running the peloton, intent on discarding sprinters, in particular Elia Viviani, whose entire Cannondale team dropped out of the peloton to try to bring him back in time to contest the finale.
Voigt took the final mountain points of the 2014 Pro Challenge, leading a break that was now just five strong, Carthy having popped off the back. The escapees clung to a lead of some 90 seconds as they descended back toward Golden, where Voigt likewise took the first sprint points of the stage.
As the break raced past the Coors brewery its advantage was down to a minute, and the peloton was growing larger as riders caught back on following the descent of Lookout Mountain. UnitedHealthcare was helping Garmin with the chase.
Ahead, Voigt led the quintet across the line and onto the finishing circuit. On their second trip around first Voigt, then Rogers tried to crack the others as the bunch closed to within 40 seconds.
Voigt finally got it done in City Park, taking Megias with him for company. Rogers, Machado and Zepuntke sat up to await the catch.
Going under the red kite, 1km from the penultimate lap of the finishing circuit, the two leaders were looking over their shoulders to see the peloton just a couple dozen seconds behind.
The bunch let them dangle awhile, and then swept them up shortly after Voigt led the way into the final lap.
His teammate Riccardo Zoidl attacked as the catch came with just over five miles to race. Pawel Poljanski (Tinkoff) followed the Austrian road champion and the two linked up with less than three miles remaining.
Behind, BMC took up the pursuit and closed to within five seconds of the escapees, then shut them down. Poljanski went once again, then surrendered, and the bunch prepared for a mass dash to the line.
BMC was firmly in charge going under the red kite, with van Garderen sitting second wheel.
Then the race leader was briefly on the point as the sprinters launched for the line. Howes powered across the line just inches ahead of Reijnen with Michael Schär (BMC) third.
Howes and Reijnen train together, and the Garmin rider said they’re best friends.
“I hate losing to him, and I hate beating him,” Howes said. “I don’t know what to do with him. But it means a lot to me to be up on the podium with him.”
Reijnen, predictably, was less elated about how the finish played out, especially for teammate Ben Day, who will retire after the Pro Challenge.
“I’m broken-hearted for my guys,” he said. “You saw the way they rode out there. That was Ben’s last day as a bike racer, and he just left everything he had on the road for me. It feels a lot more emotional than winning on the first day.”
On the overall, van Garderen took the flowers by 1:32 over Danielson with Serghei Tvetcov (Jelly Belly) third at 1:45.