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.