Five (six) who impressed at the 2013 USA Pro Challenge

Tejay van Garderen and Peter Sagan stole the show in Colorado, but these are the stories not to be overlooked from the USA Pro Challenge

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DENVER (VN) — The storylines over seven days and 1,000-plus kilometers were as plentiful as the 128 riders toeing the line, but five performances at the 2013 USA Pro Challenge stood out above the others.

While Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) came back from a disappointing Tour de France to score his second major U.S. win of 2013 and the unmatched Peter Sagan (Cannondale) won an incredible four stages, these are the stories of the other memorable rides. The exploits of van Garderen and Sagan are immortalized in the annals of the race’s history, but the rides of men like Joshua Edmondson (Sky), Gregory Brenes (Champion System), and Matt Cooke (Jamis-Hagens Berman) should not be forgotten.

Janier Acevedo and Matt Cooke (Jamis-Hagens Berman)

In one year, the small-budget U.S.-based Jamis-Hagens Berman team went from being left out of the three major U.S. tours to scoring a stage win and third overall at the Amgen Tour of California, third overall at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, and a stage win and mountains jersey at the Pro Challenge. In a season when we expected J.J. Haedo and Ben Jacques-Maynes to fuel a rebirth, it was two surprising characters that led the Latin-souled team to the podium.

The Sebastien Alexandre-directed UCI Continental squad found the revelation of the year in the U.S., in the form of Janier Acevedo. The Colombian outdueled Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) in stage 2 of the Amgen Tour, winning on the searing Tramway climb above Palm Springs, and won stage 4 in Colorado after working with the eventual overall winner to distance their pursuers after a daring, downhill attack in the rain.

Acevedo’s win in Beaver Creek came in the race’s queen stage, if there were one on a consistently difficult Pro Challenge route, but he wasn’t alone. Boulder, Colorado, resident Matt Cooke, who only signed with Jamis in early August, jumped into the long breakaway in stage 1 and held onto the KOM jersey to the end. The 34-year-old thought his career was over earlier in the season, and thought he would “fall on his face” in Colorado, but stood tallest in the mountains.

“I couldn’t ask for more. There’s no competing with these guys GC-wise; they’re incredible. This is the best I could have hoped for,” Cooke said at Sunday’s post-race press conference. “We’re happy. … I’m just stoked to be sitting here with you guys.”

Cooke targeted points when he needed to, following his stage 1 raid with a points grab atop Independence Pass in stage 2 and a crafty bit of riding to sneak a few more on Rabbit Ears Pass and two early climbs in stage 4. Like any quality KOM hunter, he did what he needed to defend the jersey.

Alexandre called Acevedo’s Colorado win his most important.

“I think it’s very important. It’s more important than California, because I had faith in him, and I knew he was going to be good, but for him, California was a big surprise for everyone,” he told VeloNews. “This is showing he is not a surprise. He’s a guy that’s been working for years and just needed an opportunity.”

Acevedo said earlier in the week that he was “happy with Jamis.” Alexandre said on Sunday he hoped Cooke would return with the team for 2014. If they do, Jamis could find its riders at the sharp end of racing when the big-budget European teams return to the U.S. in May.

Gregory Brenes (Champion System)

If there were an award for best off-the-radar rider, Brenes would take it home, without question. The 25-year-old Costa Rican signed as a stagiaire with the China-registered Champion System team in early August and started the Pro Challenge having registered two top-10 stage results at the Tour of Utah.

When Brenes shot out of the yellow jersey group on the rainy, high-speed descent from Bachelor Gulch in stage 4 to nearly catch Tom Danielson on the finish climb, he left many observers scratching their heads. Television commentators falsely identified him as American Chad Beyer. Before signing with Ed Beamon at Champion System, Brenes had finished 12th overall in the 2010 Tour de l’Avenir and eighth in the 2011 Vuelta a Colombia, but his August rides came as a complete surprise for most.

Not only did Brenes — a graduate of Movistar’s Colombian Continental program — attack his way into the top 10, he defended his position in the high-altitude Vail Pass time trial the next day.

“I’m pretty proud of him; he has shown a lot of guts,” Beamon said in a press release. “For a stagiaire, riding a course this demanding against a field this professional, it really shows his heart.”

For Brenes, the week in Colorado was a revelation. He told VeloNews on Friday night that he saw himself as a stage racer, capable of riding in the mountains and against the clock.

“The bike is my passion,” he said in a press release. “Now I can say I can climb with these guys.”

Joshua Edmondson (Sky)

Sky came into the Pro Challenge with two overriding themes: the return of Tour de France winner Chris Froome and lieutenant Richie Porte, and the American debut of neo-pros Joe Dombrowski and Ian Boswell. Froome and Porte suffered at altitude, Dombrowski abandoned after suffering multiple nosebleeds, and Boswell rode quietly through his first American race since turning professional in January.

In their absence, it was 21-year-old Joshua Edmondson who stepped up, jumping into the breakaway on three of the race’s six road stages and carrying himself like a comfortable, confident veteran. A day after trying in vain to follow Lachlan Morton’s (Garmin-Sharp) stage 2 attack on Hoosier Pass, it was Edmondson who jokingly asked Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Leopard) if he needed any advice as the two rode in a five-man group toward Steamboat Springs.

“He was able to catch the break three times this week. Chapeau, chapeau. He’s a pretty good rider,” Voigt told VeloNews. I started like that, being aggressive, trying to show myself, looking for my own chances. It’s no secret that Team Sky basically have a whole bunch of good riders, so you could say he’s another fresh, new talent they’ve discovered and are going to develop. We’re going to have some fun with him. It was so funny when he came to me, his voice was all serious, he said, ‘Have you done this before? Do you need some advice?’”

After Sunday’s stage, Porte called the young Briton brilliant.

“I mean, he’s brilliant, you know? He came in and no one said anything about him; it was all about the American neo-pros. But then Josh has just been absolutely brilliant and he has been all year. He’s going to be an absolute megastar in a few years,” Porte told VeloNews. “I think he’s 20, 21, and he’s already ready to do that. He’s flown under the radar, but I don’t expect that for much longer.”

As for Edmondson, he chalked his week off the front up to luck.

“This race obviously Joe said he wanted to do well, so we said we’d support him and he’s capable of doing well here,” he told VeloNews. “When things went sideways for him, we just said, ‘We have no one in the GC now, let’s see what we can do. So, I’ve had a bit of fun with it.'”

Edmondson’s luck ran out when he crashed out of the Pro Challenge on Sunday in a late collision with Saxo-Tinkoff’s Christopher Juul Jensen, but Sky director Dan Hunt said it was a lack of real estate that prevented the rookie’s return, not injury.

“As for Josh, by the time he fell, the racing was full on, so there was no way he was going to get back into the bunch,” Hunt said in a press release. “It was as simple as that. He has a few scrapes but there’s certainly nothing serious.”

Edmondson will be back to racing at the Tour of Britain, where, he said Saturday, he looked forward to riding in support of a GC-targeting Bradley Wiggins. If Porte is right, he’s have plenty of chances to ride from himself down the road.

Mathias Frank (BMC Racing)

Mathias Frank didn’t win the USA Pro Challenge. He didn’t wear the overall leader’s jersey and he rode in support of teammate Tejay van Garderen throughout the week. But Frank’s aggressive, stage-winning ride into Breckenridge in stage 2 was arguably the most impressive of the race.

The IAM Cycling-bound Swiss led a two-man chase, with Lawson Craddock (Bontrager), of lone leader Lachlan Morton down from Hoosier Pass. The pair caught the Aussie and when Frank jumped inside the final kilometer of the steep Moonstone Road climb to Boreas Pass, his two young companions could not answer. A razor-sharp descent to the finish netted the BMC rider his third win of the season, after two stages at the Tour de Suisse.

“I knew I could make it on the short steep climb, but the altitude, I could feel it,” Frank said afterward. “Over the top I could hardly pedal; luckily I was not the only one that had this problem, and I made it to finish. I was able to hold them off to the line. It’s really hard to go super deep like I did on the last steep pitch, because of the altitude. Normally, at sea level, it takes you 20 seconds to recover. Here, it’s the different. Once you go into the red, you never recover, but I knew it was all downhill to finish, my teammate Tejay van Garderen told me if I could just make it over the top, then it’s all downhill, the position you have over the top is the position you will have at the finish.”

That win set Frank up for a podium ride to Denver, where he and van Garderen stood first and second. Frank was key to van Garderen’s overall victory, staying with him high up on Bachelor Gulch in stage 4 then following a chasing Tom Danielson to Beaver Creek, and patrolling an early attack in stage 6 on Saturday.

“It’s actually one of my last races I’m going to be doing with this guy here on my right [Frank], because he’s switching teams next year,” the American said at Sunday’s post-race press conference. “He’s one of my best friends and I’m really glad we were able to go one-two here and I’m really going to be missing him next year when we’re racing against each other. It’s easier to race with him than against him.”

It’s not likely that IAM will contest the Pro Challenge in 2014, but if it does, fans could be treated to a van Garderen/Frank duel of friendly rivals.

Lachlan Morton (Garmin-Sharp)

Six months ago, Lachlan Morton was a neo-pro struggling through a down spring. In three separate incidents, the 21-year-old Aussie was hit by a motorbike, hit by a car, and collided with a spectator. He struggled into the early summer and decided to change things up. The changes, including a new coach, produced race leads and best young rider jerseys at the Tour of Utah and Pro Challenge in August.

“I’m definitely on the up,” he told VeloNews in Utah. “I’ve changed a few things, got a new coach, been working hard, put my head down for the last month, and it’s starting to come together, which is nice.”

Come together it did. For Morton, who spent summers training in Colorado as a teenager and now bases himself in Boulder, the Pro Challenge is something of a home race. It was fitting that, in stage 2, he pulled on the yellow race leader’s jersey in his old Breckenridge stomping grounds.

“It’s incredible, been coming here since I was 13, to ride into town today at the front was cool,” Morton said afterward.

While, like in Utah, Morton would eventually cede yellow, he held on for the young riders’ prize. Perhaps his most striking moment of the race was when Morton went to the front in yellow to work for teammate Tom Danielson on stage 4’s Cat. 1 ascent of Bachelor Gulch. The effort put Morton into the red and he trailed into Beaver Creek more than a minute behind van Garderen.

“I’ve known ‘Lachie’ forever,” Danielson said on Sunday. “Back when he was 16 and I was dropping him on Mount Evans, I thought, ‘no way this kid is 16.’ Now he’s 21 and he’s doing it. I’ve always known he’s had the talent, but as Christian [Vande Velde] and I know, the atmosphere and environment you put yourself in is so important.”

Both Danielson and Christian Vande Velde, who roomed with Morton in Colorado, suggested that the Aussie revelation take his laid-back attitude to Europe when he returns for the 2014 campaign.

“He has enough determination and enough talent to do whatever he wants at this point,” said Vande Velde. “He’s going to be fun to watch.”

The fun has already begun.