Monday, August 29, 2011

American Victory in Colorado

Van Garderen, Leipheimer, Vande Velde
The first USA Pro Cycling Challenge attracted the best riders in the world to Colorado, where enormous crowds cheered the competition over seven days and at altitudes reaching 12,000 feet. America's elite cyclists dominated the overall standings, while the top three finishers of the 2011 Tour de France made a good show but did not compete at top form. Sunday's finale into downtown Denver delivered the third sprint finish, an exciting climax to the newest showcase for professional cycling on American soil.

Launching in Colorado Springs on August 22nd, the race began with a prologue consisting of a 5 mile individual time trial. While American Christian Vande Velde drove home a compelling time, the young German Patrick Gretsch snatched the win and the leader's yellow jersey. Stage 1 brought the first mountains of the competition, including Monarch Pass and overall climbing of over 8,000 feet. Given the altitude, the two Colombian teams were pre-race favorites for the king of the mountains competition and demonstrated their form. Yet the pack drew to the finish together, and American Levi Leipheimer burst to the line first in an uncharacteristic surge of energy that surprised even him.

George Hincapie
That stage win gave Leipheimer of Team RadioShack the overall lead going into the most mountainous day of racing. Christened the "Queen's Stage," Stage 2 rose to over 12,000 feet and featured a 14 mile climb up the dirt road of Cottonwood Pass. Special permission was given for spectators to camp overnight to watch the action, including a rainy descent into Aspen. Leipheimer hesitated on that descent, young rival Tejay Van Garderen road aggressively to take over the overall lead, and fan favorite George Hincapie timed his efforts perfectly to grab the stage win. It was a day for the Americans.

The Vail time trial followed on Stage 3 with a twist. The 10 mile course was uphill, and with a climb of 1,783 feet, it favored all-around riders rather than the time trial specialists. Leipheimer won the day, and Van Garderen was profoundly disappointed in losing his grip on the overall lead. The next two stages featured moderate hills and were snatched by Elia Viviani of Liquigas-Cannondale, but not without a fight. Andy Schleck and Ivan Basso, both second place finishers of the Tour de France, drove in the breakaway looking for the stage win. They proved they were not in Colorado to take it easy. However, the peloton caught the break less than half a mile to the finish, and the Italian, Viviani, won the day. The overall standings remained stable with Leipheimer in first, Vande Velde of Garmin-Cervelo in second, and Van Garderen of HTC-Highroad in third.

Civic Park in front of the Colorado state capitol building was the site of the final stage of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. The 73 mile course finished with six circuits through the heart of downtown, and crowds lined the route 5, 10, and even 15 people deep. HTC-Highroad made several attempts to take the stage with a breakaway, aiming to bring home a win in their last race in the U.S. The winningest team in pro cycling since its start in 2008, HTC is folding at the end of the season. Yet the peloton reeled in the breakaway, and Viviani held back to let teammate and fellow Italian Daniel Oss win the stage. View the peloton riding a circuit in Denver:

Leipheimer's win at the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge came on the heels of his victory of the Tour of Utah earlier this month. The 37-year-old won the Tour de Suisse in June but had a disappointing Tour de France this year, due to multiple crashes for him and his teammates. Aside from former teammate Lance Armstrong, Leipheimer is the best known American cyclist racing today.

Danielson & Vande Velde
Finishing a mere 11 seconds behind Leipheimer was Vande Velde, age 35, who has flirted with retirement for the last few years. His solid form and experience contributed strongly to the success of his team this season, including victory at the team time trial at the Tour de France. Just 6 seconds behind Vande Velde, 23-year-old Van Garderen had hopes of winning the race but faltered on the time trial. He had just won the time trial stage at the Tour of Utah earlier this month and is considered a strong all-around rider with potential to win the Tour de France as he matures. Van Garderen continues to distinguish himself against the veteran U.S. cyclists.

The top five finishers at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge were Americans riding for American teams, a remarkable achievement unthinkable in the world of pro cycling just ten years ago. Following Leipheimer, Vande Velde, and Van Garderen were veterans Tom Danielson of Garmin and George Hincapie of BMC. Danielson had aimed to win the race but was weakened by a stomach bug and struggled to finish. The 33-year-old Colorado resident has enjoyed the best results of his career, including an unexpected ninth place finish at the Tour de France.

Hincapie is the most beloved American racing today, and whenever he appeared in Colorado, the crowds roared "George!" Despite victories such as Stage 2 in Colorado, a stage at the Tour de France, and three wins at the US Road Race Championships, personal success at the spring classics has eluded the 38-year-old. Hincapie is best known for his role as loyal teammate to three Tour de France winners. He helped Armstrong ride to seven victories, then rode for victorious teammates Alberto Contador in 2007 and Cadel Evans this year.

Andy Schleck
The world's elite cyclists competed at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, though they were not as poised to go for the win as much as the Americans. Cadel Evans arrived in Colorado after a celebratory visit to his native Australia, his first trip home after a grand Tour de France victory. He even stated that he hoped to train better for Colorado next year, though fans embraced his every move and surrounded the BMC bus seeking autographs and pictures. Andy Schleck and his brother Frank finished second and third after Evans in France, but they matched Evans in Colorado as far as fan appreciation. Children held signs welcoming the Leopard-Trek riders, and spectators jumped with delight when catching a glimpse of Andy warming up. Also in Colorado was Ivan Basso, the Italian leader of the Italian team, Liquigas. Basso is a two-time winner of the Giro d'Italia, and spectators in Colorado called out different pronunciations of his name to cheer him on.

In addition to the general classification (overall) race, cyclists competed for additional races within the race. Garmin-Cervelo won the team competition, in what is becoming a regular accomplishment for the squad. They won the team competition at this year's Tour de France, Tour de Romandie and Tour of California. Results are determined by combining the cumulative times of the top three riders of each team.

Team Garmin-Cervelo

Tejay Van Garderen won the best young rider's blue jersey, awarded to the highest-placed cyclist aged 23 and under. He won the same jersey at the Tour of California in May. Capturing the green sprinters jersey was Elia Viviani, who won Stages 4 and 5 and finished second on the final sprint in Denver. The 22-year-old has been marked as a sprinter to watch in the future. Rafael Montiel won the orange king of the mountains jersey for his performance on the climbs. Montiel is a Colombian riding for the Colombian team, Gobernacion de Antioquia-Indeported Antioquia. American Timothy Duggan of Liquigas was awarded the orange jersey for the most aggressive rider for his performance on Stage 6.
Jersey winners: Leipheimer, Montiel, Viviani, Van Garderen, Duggan

The USA Pro Cycling Challenge was the first time the top three finishers at the Tour de France competed on American soil, but the vigorous competition among the American riders brought the best action. Reaction from the crowds as well as the cyclists indicate the race was a great success and should return next year. Clearly there is demand in the U.S. for professional bike racing at the highest level. And if Cadel Evans makes good on his plan to train more specifically for Colorado, the hometown boys will have to ride even faster to defend their native championship.

View final race results:

1 comment:

  1. 10 mile course was uphill? ghesshhh, i would of stopped in less than 3 miles.. Zina, I guess your really into cycling. You know everyones long names.. I like how you took pictures of the team. :) Hope you had mucho fun in Colorado!!!