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ASPEN, Colo. (VN) — After several of the biggest names at this week’s USA Pro Challenge made clear that their post-Tour form was in question before Monday’s start in Colorado’s central mountains, RadioShack-Leopard’s Jens Voigt couldn’t help but take a friendly jab.
“Some of the guys here are saying they don’t know about their shape. Hey, we do know and we are ready,” said Voigt of his team.
Voigt’s words proved prophetic Monday as three of the team’s eight riders —Tony Gallopin, Andreas Klöden and Andy Schleck — finished stage 1 with the same time as stage winner Peter Sagan (Cannondale). The team’s George Bennett and Tiago Machado finished five seconds back, while American Ben King, who was involved in a painful training crash just days ago, came in just 17 seconds off the lead.
The squad’s collective results placed RadioShack atop the team classification at the end of Stage 1.
“It’s a perfect situation after the first day,” King explained at the finish in Aspen. “There were, what, 40 or 50 guys in the finish and we had five or six guys there.”
It’s clear that RadioShack has come to race.
Leading the squad in Colorado is 23-year-old George Bennett. The Kiwi was poised for a top-five finish at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah earlier this month before falling to 11th on the race’s final stage.
The experience has Bennett eyeing bigger things in Colorado.
“I’ve got a lot more confidence than I had going into Utah,” he said before the race. “I’m going to give it everything I have and give it a go for the overall.”
Bennett came close to stealing a big result in Monday’s 97.6-kilometer circuit race, joining a late breakaway with Sagan over the closing kilometers, before the peloton swallowed him up just outside 1km to go.
“Overall it was really good,” said Bennett, who finished five seconds behind the day’s leaders. “I’m disappointed we didn’t last about 700 meters longer. But I felt really good all day. I thought we had it at the end, so I’m a little disappointed.”
Bennett described the altitude as problematic for the breakaway.
“I was pushing as many watts as I could. If the group had worked we would have been away,” said Bennett. “But no one wanted to work and everyone cracked, so I attacked them. I didn’t have the stage in mind really at all, but I definitely would have sprinted for it. I was mainly thinking about taking time.”
Bennett attacked with former Bontrager-Livestrong teammate Carter Jones and the pair nearly held of the hungry peloton, but with 800 meters to go, Jones was done and Sagan and Co. took over.
Schleck’s impressive finish on Monday would seem to signal another step forward for the 2010 Tour de France winner.
The 28-year-old Luxembourger had a disastrous 2012 and early 2013, marked by a string of race abandons and a fractured sacrum. While far from his podium form, Schleck finished the 2013 Tour de France 20th overall — a victory in itself for the recovering rider.
Like many of the race favorites, Schleck took some time off after the Tour and is using the Pro Challenge, in part, to rebuild his form in advance of a late season goal.
“I have a little dream in my head, which is to finish the season with a good result,” Schleck told VeloNews. “And that is [October’s Giro di] Lombardia. I hope that I can achieve that. So I’ll take this week as it comes, you know?
“If I can do something and I think a result might be possible, then great, but I didn’t come here with the kind of form of [Garmin-Sharp’s Tom] Danielson, for example. This race is his life and a goal for the season. He lives here, he’s really, really motivated.”
But as Schleck showed Monday, his form is improving by the day. After a training ride Sunday, Schleck expressed pleasure with his performance at altitude.
“I tried a little test today and actually I think that I surprised myself,” he said. “I think that I can do good here. I am more than happy with how I’m going.”
Former U.S. road champion Ben King considers himself lucky to be going at all.
King was involved in a high-speed training crash days ago when an automobile turned into his path without warning. The Virginia native was descending at approximately 60 kph when he was forced off the road.
“I grabbed as much brakes as I could, but the car ran me off the road and there was no place to go,” King told VeloNews. “It all happened so quickly, so I went off the road and basically did a belly flop on a boulder. I’m in a lot of pain, but I’ve got nothing to lose and I’m going to do my best to help the team and get through [the week].
“Nothing’s broken. I blacked out a couple of times after the impact … I’ve got a lot of internal bruising and a couple of stitches in the arm.”
At the finish, King was candid about his condition.
“It felt really bad, but I made it through the day.”
Asked if he felt he could finish the race, the Virginia native smiled.
“That’s the plan. I wouldn’t have started if I hadn’t planned to finish.”
The USA Pro Challenge continues Tuesday with a 202km stage from Aspen to Breckenridge. The route includes an early ascent of the 12,095-foot Independence Pass, the race’s highest point.