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Saturday, August 25,2012

Levi Leipheimer jumps ahead to take lead in Pro Cycling Challenge

By Elizabeth Miller
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com
Leipheimer at the 2011 USA Pro Challenge

Last year’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge winner, Levi Leipheimer, surged ahead up Flagstaff Mountain to take the lead in this year’s race. He was still pushing hard across the finish line, and smiling once he crossed it.

Leipheimer, of team Omega Pharma-Quick-Step, has held steady in fourth place overall, just eight seconds behind the lead time Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda) and Tejay Van Garderen (BMC) have held on to, swapping the leader’s jersey over head count. In a climb up Flagstaff where in the incline reaches up to 15 percent, Leipheimer pounded ahead of the group of riders, chasing down individual cyclists. He finished fourth, 45 seconds after Rory Sutherland, but took double-digit — in seconds, anyway — leads on both Vande Velde and Van Garderen to take first place overall and the yellow leader’s jersey.

“I’m pleased to have this jersey on my shoulders for the moment and I’ll wear it proudly tomorrow,” Leipheimer said in the press conference after the race.

Sutherland, an Australian rider who now lives and trains in Boulder, took the lead in the stage after an unhesitating charge up Flagstaff. He finished 20 seconds ahead of Italian rider Fabio Aru, who rides for Astana, and 26 seconds ahead of Jens Voigt, a teammate on UnitedHealthcare. Voigt had made a breakaway coming up near Chautauqua just at the start of the incline that leads to the Sunrise Amphitheater, where Saturday’s stage concluded.

Sutherland’s performance earned him the most aggressive rider jersey for the day, putting him in the orange jersey going into the time trial Sunday. He said in a press conference after the race that “words don’t describe” how it felt to take that victory.

“It’s kind of a weird experience, clearly I’m not from the U.S. or Boulder originally and I don’t want to take that away from the guys who are,” he said. “But it is my adopted home. … [Coming into town] I started getting goose bumps and hot and cold shivers. You really can’t explain the emotion coming through your home town.”

He spent many of the stage’s miles in the company of Chris Baldwin and Timmy Duggan, who also call Boulder home.

Van Garderen, who wore the yellow leader’s jersey, pedaled into the finish 21 seconds behind Leipheimer’s time. Vande Velde was just nine seconds off, putting Van Garderen in third. Joseph Dombrowski, who has been wearing the best young rider jersey and will hold it going into the time trial finish, is also just 21 seconds behind the leader’s time. Dombrowski rides for Bontrager-Livestrong.

There was a moment when Dombrowski made a break for the lead then fell back, and Leipheimer called that the crux of the race and the moment he knew he needed to give it a go.

“I figured, well if Tejay isn’t jumping on his heel right away, which would make the most sense, that would mean he’s hurting,” Leipheimer says. So, he says, “I just gave it everything I had because there wasn’t much road left.”

All of them finished to a thick, noisy crowd. The roads near Pearl Street, in Boulder Canyon and on Lee Hill were packed, those in Pearl sometimes six or seven people deep. On Flagstaff, the already narrow road was squeezed with cheering crowds.

“Today was just one of the most beautiful days I’ve even see in cycling and obviously I’m an American so I’m a little bit biased, but the fans that came out they really showed that they love the sport,” Leipheimer said in the stage’s press conference.

Voigt takes the KOM jersey, having placed on all of the climbs today, including taking third on Flagstaff. Final standings put Francisco Colorado (EPM) in second and Tom Danielson (Garmin) in third. Because there are no mountains in Sunday’s time trial, those rankings will stay. Danielson finished 78 seconds behind the lead time and is now in 15th position overall.

The sprinter’s jersey stayed with Tyler Farrar (Garmin).

Stage Six began at 11:10 a.m. from Golden. The lollipop shape of the stage took cyclists 103.3 miles to climb a total of 10,030 feet before their finish on Flagstaff Mountain. King of the Mountain challenges were placed in the climbs up Boulder Canyon and Lee Hill Road, both category two climbs, and the 3.5 mile climb up Flagstaff to Sunrise Amphitheater for an uphill finish in a category one climb.

Boulder boys immediately started showing up in breakaway groups coming out of Golden. Names popping in and out of there included Boulder-based riders Duggan (Liquigas-Cannondale), Sutherland (United Health Care), Baldwin (Bissell) and Carter Jones (Bissell)  — who spent most of Stage Five in a breakaway, a tough set of days for Jones. 

The first sprint of the day saw Serghei Tvetcov (Exergy), Sutherland and Voigt (RadioShack-Nissan-Trek) in the lead. Voigt won the Aspen to Beavercreek Stage Four on Thursday in a long solo breakaway. The second sprint in Lyons also went to Tvetcov, with Duggan and Voigt right behind him.

An early breakaway group packed with about 14 riders, most of whom were far enough off the lead time that the peloton was willing to let them go, survived many of the race’s miles with as much as a 5 minute lead on the peloton. That group included Colorado, Baldwin, Duggan, George Bennett (RadioShack), Robinzon Oyola (EPM), Alex Howes (Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda), Voigt, Paolo Longo Borghini (Liquigas), Sutherland, Tvetcov, Christopher Jones (United Health Care), Fabio Aru (Astana), Rubens Bertogliati (Team Type 1) and Biao Liu (Champion System).

The peloton climbed the 15 miles up Boulder Canyon in single file, snaking line moving at about 22mph in the lower miles before slowing noticeably. 

The race’s overall leaders hung together in the peloton throughout most of the stage despite flurried breakaways and one charge toward the front by Colorado, who was just 42 seconds behind the lead, that Bennett seemed to talk him down from. The Colombian team EPM-UNE seemed prime for takeovers at several points through the day, but didn’t carry that momentum up Flagstaff at the finish. 

The USA Pro Cycling Challenge concludes Sunday with a 9.5-mile individual time trial through downtown. The flat and fast course will be tackled by a handful of riders poised to shave the seconds off their time necessary to win the race, while Leipheimer could also hold on to his lead.

“It remains to be seen,” Leipheimer said of what to expect of his own performance in the time trial.

Stage Seven begins at 1 p.m. Details are at www.usaprocyclingchallenge.com.

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