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Dennis takes Pro Challenge lead from Bookwalter, likely for good

The BMC rider wins stage 4 in Breckenridge, snatching the leader's jersey from teammate Brent Bookwalter (left) ahead of Friday's TT.

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BRECKENRIDGE, Colorado (VN) — With a demonstrative solo stage win in Breckenridge, BMC Racing’s Rohan Dennis proved Thursday he is the strongest rider at this fifth edition of the USA Pro Challenge. And with a technical, undulating 14-kilometer time trial on tap Friday — Dennis is expected to take the stage win and expand his lead — the young Australian will almost certainly open an insurmountable gap atop the general classification.

Dennis took the leader’s jersey from teammate Brent Bookwalter in Breckenridge, ending any and all speculation as to whether or not he would ride for GC victory or ride to support Bookwalter, the American super-domestique who is seven years his senior.

Those questions were answered via a late-race attack by young American Robbie Squire (Hincapie Racing), who surged ahead of a reduced bunch on the short, steep climb of Moonstone Road on Boreas Pass with 4km remaining. Dennis was positioned ahead of Bookwalter when Squire attacked, and for a moment, both BMC riders allowed the Hincapie rider to open a small gap.

As they grew closer to the summit, Bookwalter drifted back, while Dennis was compelled to chase — Squire started the stage fifth overall, 13 seconds behind Bookwalter and seven seconds behind Dennis.

Dennis caught Squire and accelerated over the top, riding solo to victory. Bookwalter caught Squire on the quick descent into Breckenridge, finishing second on the stage. It was the third BMC stage win in four stages by three different riders, and it kept the race lead within the squad, which has won the Pro Challenge the past two years under American Tejay van Garderen, who skipped the Colorado race to instead compete at the Vuelta a España.

“I was in the red,” Dennis said. “I kept looking at my power, making sure I didn’t go too far. I sort of let Robbie go a little bit, and then used him as a bit of a carrot. I was honestly playing mind games with myself. I was waiting for 1km to go, and I never saw it. Then I saw 200m to go, and the crowd was going nuts. I clicked it into a bigger gear and went. It hurt, I won’t lie. But there was a lot of adrenaline, knowing you are over the top first, and there is a gap. It gives you a boost.”

Dennis’ stage win served as confirmation of the aggressive, all-out racing he’s exercised since the opening stage. Though he initially downplayed his GC chances, claiming he was not yet acclimated to Colorado’s high altitude, Dennis has demonstrated on every stage of this race he is the strongest rider in the peloton.

Thursday morning, prior to the stage 4 start in Aspen, VeloNews asked Dennis his thoughts about the fact that, while a Pro Challenge victory would be the biggest result of Bookwalter’s career, for Dennis, it wouldn’t even be the biggest result of his stellar 2015 season. Dennis was frank in his answer.

“I’ve thought about that, and… I can’t control other people’s results,” he said. “[Bookwalter] is a really good mate. He’s the best teammate you could have. But I can’t really let that get in the way. Obviously I have to make sure I don’t lose time today, because if anything does happen to one of us, we need to have more options. If we’re both 1-2 after the time trial, it’s just better that way. As long as one of us wins, it doesn’t matter.”

If there were any hard feelings at the finish line in Breckenridge, Bookwalter deserves an Academy Award for downplaying them. Seconds after crossing the finish line, Bookwalter hugged Dennis emphatically, high-fiving his teammates and BMC team staff.

“All in the family, man,” Bookwalter said. “It’s all good.”

“Robbie Squire put in hard acceleration, and I had to say ‘no can do,’” Bookwalter said. “Rohan gave it a little bit of a gap. Our tactic going into the stage was to save a bit for the last 200 meters over the top. That’s when you are loaded with lactic acid, totally anaerobic, with no oxygen. Rohan smacked it over the top. I did the same to get on terms with Robbie, and then I sat on him over the downhill.”

Asked later about his emotions of losing the race lead, and to a teammate, Bookwalter expanded.

“There is some disappointment in losing the jersey,” he said. “As I’ve said, opportunities to wear a leader’s jersey don’t come along every race for me. That said, I had a great two days in jersey, and that came about from teamwork, and especially teamwork from Rohan, and that put me there. There are no hard feelings. I’m really happy for him. In hindsight, this was good team tactic, coming into the race — Rohan was quick to deflect his ambitions, he didn’t want the pressure. The best thing we could do was tell him to ride as hard as he could on the front. He did, and he’s now in great position to win the race.”

Dennis said he was sincere when he initially thought he wouldn’t be adapted to altitude in time to compete for the overall in Colorado.

Asked if he’d been coy about his GC ambitions, Dennis answered, “I’ve tried to flick myself every day. On the first day, at 40km to go, then again at 20km. On the second day I rode from the bottom to the top of the final climb [Arapahoe Basin], thinking I’d get dropped. Yesterday I rode up Independence Pass, start to finish, with a bit of help from Michael Schar. Today I rode up [Moonstone Road] as hard as I could. I honestly wasn’t planning on riding for GC, it just happens I’ve stepped up a few levels, the last few years, and altitude doesn’t affect me as much as I’d thought.”

For Dennis, a time trial specialist with a track background, the emotion of a solo victory on road stage that featured a late-race climb, at altitude, was significant.

“That doesn’t happen too often, I’m usually on the podium in a team time trial, or an individual time trial, so a stage with a hilltop and a small descent is pretty special,” Dennis said. “I was excited, it was electric, just like Brent and Taylor [Phinney] said after their stage wins this week. On the podium I was looking around at the crowd, and it was one of the special moments of my career, that’s for sure.”

Next up is Friday’s time trial, a short effort that features the same steep ascent of Moonstone Road and a quick descent back into town. Three of the best TT riders in the bunch all wear BMC jerseys — Dennis, Bookwalter, and Phinney.

“The time trial was my initial goal, and I’m aiming to take that stage win as well,” Dennis said. “Then it’s all about protecting that lead, and then second with Brent. Unless I have a bad one, and he smokes me, and then we’ll swap around again.”

As for Bookwalter, he said losing the jersey might actually help him in his race against the clock.

“If anything, I have a little bit less pressure, which might help me do a better time trial,” he said. “I’m inspired to finish off this week of racing. My dream scenario would be to go 1-2 in the GC. It will be hard to do, but it’s not impossible. That will be my motivation. Finishing on the podium of the USA Pro Challenge would be a highlight of my career.”