Beatdown in Boulder: Anyone who wants Tejay van Garderen’s jersey will be fighting on Flagstaff

The Pro Challenge's only sustained uphill finish is 3.5 miles long with 1,200 feet of climbing, on a road teeming with insane fans

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (VN) — This one’s going to hurt.

The Golden-to-Boulder stage of the USA Pro Challenge is 103 miles long and packs in 10,000 feet of climbing. It ends on Flagstaff Mountain, a legendary climb just above Boulder. From the bottom, it’s 3.5 miles and 1,200 feet of climbing on a road teeming with fans. It’s the Pro Challenge’s only sustained uphill finish.

“It’s going to be hard. Everyone’s known it’s going to be hard since they announced it last year. It’s going to be one of the turning points of the race. So you have to have your A game on tomorrow,” said Garmin-Sharp’s Christian Vande Velde, who’s on the same time as race leader Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) and only trails the yellow jersey due to stage placings.

This is the moment for the general-classification men who must take time out of van Garderen. Vande Velde says he is confident in his time trial, but the BMC man is the odds-on favorite among contenders to throw down during the closing race of truth on Sunday in Denver.

Did we mention it’s going to be crazy in Boulder?

“They’ve been talking about it since they announced the course, haven’t they?” asked RadioShack-Nissan’s Chris Horner. Yes, they have.

“I mean, Tejay’s in the best place, wearing the yellow jersey, and so is Christian. But we’re in a good spot because we’ve got a lot of guys close on GC. We play some attacks. I’m sure Garmin’s going to play some attacks, because Garmin’s not going to want it to come down to the TT with Tejay, either. So you’ve got to believe they’re going to be attacking just like we are.”

Behind van Garderen and Vande Velde, the GC is a tangle of talented climbers all waiting for the showdown in Boulder. Ivan Rovny (RusVelo) is in third at 6 seconds down. Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) is in fourth, 8 seconds back. Janez Brajkovic (Astana), Joe Dombrowski (Bontrager-Livestrong), Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp), Andreas Klöden (RadioShack-Nissan) and Horner are all within 22 seconds of yellow.

Van Garderen is poised to defend headed into the time trial on Sunday. But he has one eye locked firmly on Leipheimer going into Saturday’s stage.

“Tomorrow’s going to be hard, and people keep forgetting about Levi. I think that’s a mistake because against Christian he’s the better time trialer and also the better climber and he’s only eight seconds down,” van Garderen said. “So, he’s very much still in contention, so I’m definitely worried about him.”

For the yellow jersey, it’s going to be a busy day. The attacks will come. Everyone knows it. Garmin-Sharp, for example, has been vicious all race.

“It’s not just a game of me versus Christian. There are a lot of other guys in this race.,” said van Garderen. “Not only is it going to be hard because it’s a climb — it’s going to be tactical.

“I can follow one guy, I can follow two guys, but I can’t follow three. I may have to let one go and gamble and see how it plays out. But we have a strong team and we’ll try and use them up as much as possible.”

And for all the mountains in Colorado, the race has yet to end on a long climb — something Leipheimer is hoping will sort things out.

“It hasn’t been super-selective yet. We haven’t seen a time trial or a long, uphill finish,” he told VeloNews. “I don’t know Flagstaff as well as the Boulder boys, but I’m hoping it will be somewhat tougher than what we’ve seen so far. I understand they want to keep the classification close, keep it exciting. But at the same time, we should have a real mountaintop finish. It is Colorado, after all.”

Well, Leipheimer’s about to get his wish in Flagstaff. But the stage is much more than the final climb. The start in Golden promises to be lunacy, with fans stacked deep at the barriers. The peloton will head to Boulder and then climb 15 miles to Nederland, where it hops on the Peak to Peak Highway. That’s not an easy climb at all to Nederland, and the bunch will have to contend with winds between Golden and Boulder, and on the return trip from toward the final climb. Lee Hill, which comes before Flagstaff, isn’t a picnic, either.

“Tomorrow’s got everything. It could be really hot and definitely some possible winds coming out of Golden into Boulder. That’s always windy there,” said Boulder’s Timmy Duggan (Liquigas-Cannondale).

“Lee Hill and Flagstaff are the steepest climbs we’ve done all week, so I think anything could happen. … Up high in the altitude, with a lot of tired legs up there, that could be a place for a move. Lee Hill is another launching pad not so far from the finish. We’ll see, but I think it will be another really aggressive race tomorrow.”

Danielson has called the Flagstaff climb his favorite in the world. He was out doing repeats before the Tour of Utah, and he has to be hoping for something special. BMC’s assistant sport director, Mike Sayers, said he hopes to deliver van Garderen to the climb with the rest of the contenders and then let him fend for himself.

“We’ve just got to ride as a team and do the best we can as a team. No matter what happens tomorrow, we just need to ride as a team, which I know we will do,” he said. “And we just need to try to get him to the bottom of Flagstaff in a reasonable position, as associated with the GC guys.

“And whatever happens, happens.”