MOUNT CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. (VN) — He entered the favorite and Levi Leipheimer stamped his name on the USA Pro Cycling Challenge with a stage 1 win Tuesday here. Leipheimer (RadioShack) said Wednesday night that the finale gave him confidence against the underdog Colombians from Gobernacion and EPM-UNE, but that the race would be difficult to control.
Leipheimer surged away from a group of favorites, countering a Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) attack 500 meters from the finish in the central Colorado ski area town. Thousands of fans bore down on the finish barriers as the former Tour de France third-place drew his cheeks tightly under the effort at more than 9,300 feet in elevation.
“I saw the 300 meters to go sign and thought, ‘Oh boy, that’s a long ways,’” said Leipheimer after the finish. “I looked back under my arm and saw the gap was getting bigger … I had to keep going.”
Keep going Leiphiemer did, raising his arms across the line and minutes later donning the yellow and white race leader’s jersey that he pulled from the back of HTC-Highroad’s Patrick Gretsch.
Much was made of the tactics ahead of the Crested Butte finale. A day before the race’s biggest stage, the 130-mile monster from Gunnison to Aspen, which includes two 12,000-foot-plus passes, would riders be willing to risk an attack on the power climbers’ finish?
Leipheimer has spent more than three weeks at altitude, in Utah and Colorado, and didn’t hesitate when the time was right. Schleck couldn’t follow the acceleration, gapping off Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) before recovering for third. Tour of Utah runner-up (to Leipheimer) Sergio Henao (Gobernacion de Antioquia-Indeportes Antiquia) came from behind for second, with Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) showing himself adept in the high mountains, coming in for fourth.
Garmin-Cervélo’s Tom Danielson lost nine seconds.
“It was super, super hard. When Levi went it was really a phenomenal effort,” Danielson told VeloNews. “Everyone was just totally anaerobic. It was short enough that you could punch it over with 500 (meters) to go and then it leveled out. Levi timed it perfectly. He went at the steep part and everyone thought it kept going, but it leveled out. He got a nice little gap and he held it to the finish.”
It was his intelligence that shone perhaps more than his legs for Leipheimer. With a mellowing grade near the finish, his burst on the steep ramp a half kilometer from the line came on the heels of two attacks by the Schleck brothers and was long enough to capture time without going too deep for too long. Fränk Schleck said the acceleration was timed perfectly.
“As soon as we caught him (Andy), I attacked, and then Levi counterattacked me and I couldn’t hold his wheel,” said Schleck. “He was the strongest today.”
In the end, the three-time Tour of California winner and champion of June’s Tour de Suisse, thought of widely as cycling’s fourth grand tour, took four seconds on Henao, seven on a group that included Fränk Schleck, Christian Vande Velde (Garmin) and Tejay Van Garderen (HTC). UnitedHealthcare’s Rory Sutherland lost 18 seconds, while Andy Schleck slid down the GC by a minute.
“It’s a good sign I was able to put time into a rider like Henao,” said Leipheimer. “I thought we’d lose a handful of seconds to him.”
When asked who his top rivals were looking toward Independence Pass tomorrow, Leipheimer said it was difficult to judge with such an unpredictable day ahead.
“It’s tough to say because things can get out of control and out of hand … If I try to control Henao and Christian for example, it’s going to be (Janier) Acevedo and Ryder (Hesjedal) up the road,” he said. “It’s too hard to pick one person.”
With the confidence of the Tour of Utah title and Tuesday’s result, Leipheimer did say that Wednesday’s stage would come down primarily to the strength of his teammates — and his top rivals. It was RadioShack man Ivan Rovny who ushered Leipheimer into the finale.
“I noticed some riders were suffering and the attacks started going,” said Leipheimer. “I can’t say enough about my teammate Ivan Rovny… I could tell he really wanted to stop, but I was pushing him, ‘Come on, come on.’”
With potentially strong crosswinds in the run-in from Buena Vista to the base of Independence Pass (used three decades ago in the Coors Classic by riders like Dale Stetina to dispatch his Colombian rivals), Leipheimer will rely on Rovny and his RadioShack teammates to deliver him at the head of the favorites group.
His roommate Jason McCartney was confident but wary of Henao and his countrymen, who were the strongest squad top-to-bottom on the final stage in Utah, which finished atop the long 10-percent climb to Snowbird Resort.
“Levi is super motivated,” McCartney told VeloNews. “I rode with him in Utah and we’ve all been at altitude so we’re super motivated. It’s a big race for RadioShack and Nissan. I’m rooming with Levi here and I know he’s just super motivated. We’ll see how it goes with the Colombians.”
It will be up to Leipheimer’s mates to control what Danielson expected to be “chaos” on the race’s longest, highest day on Wednesday. If they do so, an uphill time trial and three days of potentially devastating winds will stand between Leipheimer and his third stage race win of 2011.