Without ever ranking higher in a single stage than the second place he took to Tejay Van Garderen in Stage Two, Christian Vande Velde turned up the speed in the time trial finish to the USA Pro Cycling Challenge on Sunday afternoon, and won himself the race.
"Today I had a lot of confidence," Vande Velde said in a press conference later that day. "Much more than other people had in me. ... It was an amazing race, straight to finish."
After a week of strategizing their way up and down Rocky Mountain passes, working in and out of breakaways and solo sprints to the finish, getting cheered on by team managers and teammates, often negotiating with rain and wind, the Pro Cycling Challenge came down to a flat, fast 9.5-mile track in 90 degree heat in downtown Denver.
The two riders, Van Garderen and Vande Velde, both from Boulder, had shared a lead time for most the week and traded the leader’s jersey over head counts when they crossed the finish lines in the same group — and then seen last year’s winner, Levi Leipheimer, spring to the lead to finish Stage Six on Flagstaff Mountain far enough ahead of both of them to enter today’s stage in the leader’s jersey. For the final stage, they had to be fast and aerodynamic, racing against a clock rather than pacing off one another.
"I really wanted to win," Van Garderen said. "After the Olympics I was tired, but I had this on my mind and it kept me focused and on my bike. I really wanted this."
Taylor Phinney — also from Boulder — took the stage win, completing the 9.5 mile individual time trial that raced through downtown Denver in just 17 minutes and 25 seconds. Race commentators pegged Phinney’s average time at 32.7 mph. Phinney set that time early in the time trial, which was ordered based on overall rankings.
"A hometown win is always a beautiful thing," Phinney said at the press conference after Stage Seven. "The time trial has been my carrot the whole week that I was chasing, other than trying to get the Exergy Leader Jersey."
Van Garderen, Vande Velde and Leipheimer went last.
Van Garderen entered the race ranked third overall, and finished with the second best time for the stage, 19 seconds behind Phinney’s lead, until Vande Velde took the course just after him. Vande Velde shaved another nine seconds off the time, bumping Van Garderen to third in the stage. Leipheimer’s time placed him ninth in the stage, 43 seconds behind Phinney’s, costing him the win.
“I got down to a really good climbing weight for this race, but when it comes to a 15 kilometers flat race out on city streets, with a lot of corners, I just don’t have it compared to going up Flagstaff,” Leipheimer said in a statement released by his team, Omega Pharma-Quick-Step. “I gave it my all to stand on the podium. Yesterday, I wore my heart on my sleeve those last three and a half kilometers.”
Leipheimer attributed his win Saturday to the cheering fans, who were along almost every inch of the Flagstaff finish, and says he’s proud of the result.
"I look at this race from an outside perspective," Leipheimer says. "I don't think it could have been any more exciting or dramatic. The leads changed daily, and the jerseys switched back and forth. ... We are building a story here. ... I hope we are inspiring the next generation of cyclists through the USA Pro Challenge."
Overall standings left Tyler Farrar
(Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda) with the sprint jersey win, Jens Voigt
(RadioShack-Nissan-Trek) with the King of the Mountains jersey, Joseph
Dombrowski (Bontrager Livestrong) with the best young rider jersey and Tom
Danielson (Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda) with the most aggressive rider jersey for
overall effort exerted throughout the week. RadioShack-Nissan-Trek took home
the overall team win.
"This was one of the best weekends of my life," Phinney said. "Coming into Boulder the crowds just kept getting bigger and bigger. I was getting teary-eyed. I passed my high school twice yesterday. Yesterday was so special for me."
That so many wins went to American riders is a surprise for cycling, a sport often dominated by European competitors and certainly held more often on their turf.
"The reason you see Americans on the podium is because we are motivated to do well here," Phinney said. "It's not about Europeans not performing, it's about Americans stepping up their game. ... We spend so much time away from home and it's a beautiful, beautiful thing to race on these big American roads."
Visit www.usaprocyclingchallenge.com for a complete list of rankings.