Pushing a little bit harder

Boulder's Matt Cooke hanging onto KOM jersey into stage four

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Photo by Garrett Ellwood, GettyImages
Matt Cooke on the podium for Stage Three\'s KOM jersey

Maybe it’s too soon to say, but Matt Cooke’s story feels like the comeback story of the Pro Challenge.  Cooke spent the first half of this season cycling in
races around the U.S. as an amateur competitor after his pro team, Exergy,
collapsed.

“Last fall my sort of team fell through for the year, so I
was left without a professional team for the first few months of the year and I
had to sort of prove myself,” he says. Jamis-Hagens Berman got the message after strong showings in the Tour of the Gila and the Tour de Beauce, and signed the seven-year Boulder resident to their team at the end of June. Among their goals was recruiting his climbing
and high altitude experience to support Janier Acevedo, who won stages at the
Amgen Tour of California, SRAM Tour of the Gila and finished third in the Tour
of Utah.

In the week before the race, as Cooke was coming back from the
Tour of Utah, he told Boulder Weekly
this is probably one of the better seasons he’s ever had and he thought he might be ready to peak for the Pro Challenge. Looking at the race’s
stages, he said, “Let me tell you, they’re all
intimidating. … Any of the climbing stages, I think even the time trial in Vail
could be good for me. … The last stage in Denver is huge, there’s just so many
people, it’d be fun to do well there on a breakaway or something, in that stage
in front of that many people.”

Modest goals for a guy who’s now got heads whipping around
to watch as he jumps into one breakaway after another and maintains his hold on
the King of the Mountains competition coming into the fourth day of racing for
the USA Pro Challenge.

“For me, personally, it’s a climbing race,” Cooke said. “I’d
say it’s maybe the hardest race in the U.S. right now, arguably harder than Tour of California and Tour of Utah — not that those are easy at all, but the elevation
plus climbing is just brutal.”

There’s not a lot of time to think during a race, he says,
but when you get a minute to look around and remember that among the sea of
supporters are your wife and friends, “You do push a little bit harder.”

The crowds in Colorado are often concentrated at start and
finish lines and on the King of the Mountains summits, where Cooke has been
shining.

“Oftentimes we’re just out in the desert racing through this
horrible heat or what have you, but when you’re going up some of these passes
and there’s people yelling, you do push a little bit harder,” Cooke said. “You
pick up the pace a little bit when people are cheering.”

The rider has continued to point to Acevedo as a
threat for the general classification win for the Pro Challenge, and preserving
that chance is still a goal for the team — though Cooke says he does hope there will be
opportunity for him to preserve his hold on the King of the Mountains jersey.
Stage three saw Cooke taking an early breakaway to climb the first King of the
Mountains over Swan Mountain outside Breckenridge in second place, and riding
with the field through the rest of the stage before pushing to the front
to take fifth in the
Rabbit Ears King of the Mountains. He finished the day with 38
points in the KOM competition, ahead of his teammate Tyler Wren, who held
second place with 25 points.

Jamis’s team manager, Sebastian Alexandre, told VeloNews he
thinks the Jamis team may be able to support both riders in pursuit of their
goals.

Stage Four, the Queen Stage, sets riders against 102.9 miles
an 11,647 feet of climbing that begins in Steamboat, rolls through hills to
State Bridge, then begins a relentless series of climbs to four KOM challenges,
including an ascent to Bachelor Gulch that occasionally throws out a brutal 18
percent incline. A technical descent is capped off with a final two-kilometer
climb to the finish in Beaver Creek.