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BMC in control at USA Pro Challenge, but for which rider?

Brent Bookwalter and Rohan Dennis are first and second on GC at the USA Pro Challenge, and it's not entirely clear who the leader is.

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ARAPAHOE BASIN SKI RESORT, Colorado (VN) — Professional road cycling is a team sport. It doesn’t matter who wins, riders and directors will often tell you, as long as the team wins.

Yeah, right.

While pro cycling is most definitely a team sport, the rewards most often go to individuals. Entire teams aren’t brought onto the podium to celebrate an individual’s win. Every rider on a team isn’t awarded UCI points based on an individual rider’s result. Every rider on a national team isn’t awarded an Olympic medal when one rider finishes on the podium. Contracts are written up largely based around individual results; it’s much harder to quantify selflessness, or team contributions to another rider’s results.

Pro cycling is a team sport, except in the ways that it isn’t.

Which is why what’s happening within the BMC Racing Team at the USA Pro Challenge this week is so fascinating.

What’s been made abundantly clear after only two days of racing is that BMC has the two strongest riders in the race, in race leader Brent Bookwalter and second-placed Rohan Dennis.

Bookwalter came into the race after finishing third overall at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. The other two riders from that podium, Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale-Garmin) and Mike Woods (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) are not in Colorado, meaning that, of the riders who are on form and climbing well at altitude, Bookwalter was at the top of the list at the start in Steamboat Springs.

Dennis came into the race downplaying his GC ambitions, citing a lack of acclimation to the high elevation in Colorado. “My goals for GC here aren’t huge,” he told VeloNews on Saturday. “I’m looking for a stage win, especially the time trial. Maybe, if the opportunity is right, I’ll go up the road, and maybe get a road stage.”

Worth a mention: Dennis was asked to attend the pre-race press conference, along with BMC’s Colorado son, Taylor Phinney; Bookwalter was not, though it would be uncommon to have three riders from one team at an event such as that.

In the finale of stage 1, Dennis launched a vicious attack that only Guillaume Boivin (Optum) could attempt to match; they were brought back in the last kilometer, with Phinney winning the stage from a reduced bunch. Bookwalter finished third.

On stage 2, Dennis went to the front on the 8-kilometer climb to Arapahoe Basin, and drove such a fierce tempo that the entire field of GC contenders was shed off his wheel, save for Bookwalter. When the American came around, Dennis wasn’t sitting up — both men were sprinting for stage victory, and the race leadership that came with it.

“When I saw 300 meters to go I started to basically attack from the front, and I saw on the TV screen that Brent was sort of next to me, so I tried to get on him, but he went straight past me and got into position to win,” Dennis said. “It’s great we got one-two, and I sort of surprised myself. I rode pretty well from the bottom to the top, and I was expecting to blow at least 3km to go when people started attacking.”

Dennis was clearly trying to win on both of the first stages, and instead, in both instances, his teammates did. Those wins came off of the back of Dennis’ efforts, but whether or not that was direct or indirect was difficult to ascertain. On stage 1, Bookwalter said Dennis had “changed the plan.”

“We had some tentative plans going into today,” Bookwalter said after stage 1. “When you have a strong Rohan, plans change. Taylor and I were going into the same climb saying, ‘what is happening?’”

On Tuesday, Bookwalter said Dennis had him “cross eyed, biting my stem” on the climb up to A-Basin. “It was actually nice to get to that last climb and have Rohan put the hammer down. Then it was simple: hold the wheel, ride as hard as we can and it’s done.”

After the stage, Dennis essentially said he’d gone as hard as he could, for as long as he could, only falling off pace in the final 200 meters.

“I just set my own tempo and I sat on my own power,” Dennis said. “I was just chasing whoever attacked, and Nathan Brown [Cannondale-Garmin] was out front. I thought when he was gone people would start attacking full gas, but they just never did.”

To be clear — there’s nothing wrong with Dennis trying to take the race by the horns. He is one of the strongest riders in the world, as evidenced by his Santos Tour Down Under victory, his Hour Record, and his TT stage win in Utrecht at the Tour de France, which brought a maillot jaune along with it. He’s very likely a future grand tour winner, and he wears No. 1 at this race, as the anointed leader of BMC in Tejay van Garderen’s absence. The Australian came to Colorado to compete, as well as to build his fitness toward the Richmond world championships. And he’s clearly feeling better than he’d expected.

However there are certainly many U.S. fans hoping to see Bookwalter, an American rider on an American team, win one of the biggest races in the States. The fact that Bookwalter’s career has been more of an unsung domestique is all the more reason why many American fans are questioning the tactics, and loyalties, within the BMC team.

“Brent has always been the guy who led out our other guys to get there,” said BMC team director Jackson Stewart, a former teammate of Bookwalter’s. “For me, he deserves so many more results than he ever got. He was so close to being national road champion and national time trial champion in the same year. Little things like that, where he has been so close in results before. And that was in the few times he was able to try for himself. Most of the time, he was working for others. So to win a race like this and take the jersey like this is huge for him and his career. It is a big payoff for all the work he has done in the past.”

When asked whether he would ride to support Bookwalter, Dennis essentially said he’d continue riding the same way he had during the first two stages — aggressively.

“Obviously Brent is showing that he’s strong, and I’m going to keep going like I did the last two days,” Dennis said. “I think we don’t want to throw both our bullets down the drain. We’re going to do the same thing we’ve done for the last two days. I’ll probably put my hand up to work for him later on in the stage and do some pulls or whatever I have to do, sort of like today. If we can hold one-two we will, but if either one of us wins it’s good.”

As things stand, Bookwalter heads into stage 3 wearing yellow, but Dennis is almost certainly going to perform better in Friday’s stage 5 time trial, a 14km race that includes a climb over Moonstone Road and a descent back into Breckenridge.

Asked which rider the TT course might favor, Dennis said he viewed himself as the favorite.

“I’d say myself, only because I do train a lot on the time trial bike and it feels just as comfortable as the road bike,” said Dennis. “My power output is the same on the time trial bike, if not more than on the road bike. It’s a specialty of mine. Look, Brent has been training and practicing on it a lot the past week, and I think he’s pretty motivated, as you saw today. For sure [the time trial] is going to be decisive.”

One thing that is certain — there is still plenty of racing to come before Friday’s TT.

“Yeah, it’s possible,” Bookwalter said, when asked if Friday’s TT could come down to the BMC teammates fighting for overall GC supremacy. “But [Wednesday] we finish on Independence Pass and the descent down to Aspen. Then the next day we start with Independence Pass and have some really hard climbs toward the end. Hoosier Pass is super high altitude, and last year we had that really nasty weather there. So it’s by no means even close to being over.

“But I think we’re in a good position,” Bookwalter continued. “The team showed over the last two days that we’re really strong. And I was pleased, obviously, with how I rode today as well. So I think we couldn’t ask for more up to this point, but we can’t take that for granted. And we can’t be overly confident.”

Another thing that’s certain — for Dennis, 24, an overall win at the USA Pro Challenge would not rank as the highest achievement in what’s been a career-making season. For Bookwalter, 31, an overall win would be a career highlight.

Does that matter? Should it?

It’s doubtful that will be going through Dennis’ mind during the stage 5 time trial. If he wins, and seals the overall, the strongest man will have won.

And if Bookwalter wins, he’ll have beaten a worthy adversary, wearing the same team colors.

For the rest of us, either way, it will be fascinating to watch.