BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — Rory Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare) won atop Flagstaff Mountain on Saturday, but it was Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) who lit up the race, leaving the other contenders in his dust on the final ascent and setting the stage for a no-holds-barred battle on Sunday in the finale to the 2012 USA Pro Challenge.
Sutherland shot out of a crumbling break to take stage 6 by 20 seconds ahead of Fabio Aru (Astana) and Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Nissan). But Leipheimer followed, leaving race leader Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing Team) and the rest of his rivals struggling, and rode into the overall lead with just one stage remaining — a technical, 9.5-mile time trial in downtown Denver.
The new race leader was delighted to be in the yellow jersey with one stage remaining.
“I’m just extremely happy,” said Leipheimer. “I gave it everything I had. Today was one of the most beautiful days I’ve ever seen in cycling. I wanted to put on a show and give it everything I had. I was completely empty at the line.”
Stage-winner Sutherland — who also collected the most-aggressive-rider jersey for his effort — was likewise pleased with the outcome.
“It’s my biggest career win,” he said, “and I’m still coming to terms with how we actually managed to pull that off. It’s great for UnitedHealthcare and great for me as well.”
“It’s funny,” Sutherland continued. “We were talking about it at dinner last night when I walked past the Bissell table and saw Chris Baldwin. I told them as a joke, ‘If you get up the road, I’m coming.’”
Attacks from the gun
The 102.8-mile stage, which included 10,000 feet of climbing, took the peloton from Golden to Boulder via Nederland, the Peak to Peak Highway and Lyons. Riders faced the grinder of Lee Hill before tackling Flagstaff, a legendary climb just above Boulder that ascends 1,200 feet in just 3.5 miles.
The attacks began from kilometer zero, with Camilo Castiblanco (EPM-UNE) clearly eager to strip Garmin-Sharp’s Tom Danielson of his red mountains jersey and Voigt being … well, Jens Voigt. Teammate Chris Horner worked himself into the early action too, as did U.S. pro road champ Timmy Duggan (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Ben Day (UnitedHealthcare).
A break finally coalesced, containing Voigt, Robigzon Oyola (EPM-UNE), Alex Howes (Garmin-Sharp), Serghei Tvetcov (Exergy), Jake Keough (UnitedHealthcare) and Matt Brammeier (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).
A chase group of seven bridged to the sextet, among them Sutherland and George Bennett (RadioShack), but the escape was by no means settled as rider after rider leaped out of the pack and tried to hook up with the leaders.
“Yeah, probably 80 guys tried to go in the breakaway this morning,” Voigt quipped afterward.
In the end, a 13-man break was out front, containing Aru, Howes, Bennett, Voigt, Duggan, Sutherland, Oyola, Paolo Longo Borghini (Liquigas-Cannondale), Chris Jones (UnitedHealthcare), Rubens Bertogliati (Team Type 1-Sanofi), Biao Liu (Champion System), Francisco Colorado (EPM-UNE) and Chris Baldwin (Bissell).
The escapees had four minutes in hand as they rolled into Boulder, pursued by Carter Jones (Bissell) and Joey Rosskopf (Team Type 1), who were stuck in no-man’s land and making little headway. BMC was massed on the front for race leader van Garderen.
Colorado was best-placed in the break, just 42 seconds off the lead, and thus was the yellow jersey on the road.
Jones and Rosskopf soldiered grimly along for miles before finally falling back to the bunch. Ahead, meanwhile, Colorado and Bennett briefly attacked the break, but decided against continuing and likewise slipped back to their group with 56 miles to race.
Riding down toward Lyons the escapees were still holding onto an advantage of some five minutes. But with danger man Colorado refusing to drop back its days certainly seemed numbered, though BMC was getting no help back in the bunch.
With 20 miles remaining the break still had four minutes in hand as it approached Lee Hill Road. And then Voigt punched it, taking Bennett with him, launching his teammate toward the penultimate KOM and blowing up the break in the process.
Colorado went after them and caught Voigt as he came off the gas, then went after Bennett. But the RadioShack rider carried on and took the KOM, which was lined left and right with crazed spectators.
Behind, Garmin finally lent a hand to BMC, but as the peloton crested Lee Hill Road, van Garderen was down to just one support rider.
The break reformed on the descent back to Boulder, but then Oyola launched his own attack. Voigt shut that down in short order, and then Bertogliati attacked. The RadioShack man snuffed that one out, too.
Then, inexplicably, Colorado looked over one shoulder and fell out of the break as it rounded a crowd-packed corner with a half-dozen miles left, perhaps thinking he had done enough to take the mountains jersey from Danielson.
The break set up for the final ascent as the bunch closed to within two minutes — and then Voigt attacked and led the race onto the lower slope of Flagstaff Mountain. The indomitable German quickly took a sizable lead, but Sutherland set out after him, reeled him in and went on past.
Behind, van Garderen began moving forward, and Leipheimer marked him. Christian Vande Velde (Garmin) was hanging tough, too.
And then best young rider Joe Dombrowski (Bontrager-Livestrong) had a dig. Van Garderen reeled him in and brought the others with him.
Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale), wearing the most-aggressive-rider jersey, was next to have a go. He too was brought back.
And then Leipheimer saw his opening. When Dombrowski jumped again and van Garderen didn’t follow, he knew it was time to go.
Dombrowski “looked strong,” Leipheimer said. “And I figured, well, if Tejay wasn’t jumping on his wheel right away … that means he’s hurting and he’s starting to gamble and starting to key off Christian and myself.”
“I dropped back a little bit and gave it everything I had. It was just go for broke because there’s not much road left in this USA Pro Challenge.”
Van Garderen tried to follow, but the defending champion was simply screaming up the hill, picking off rider after rider from the disintegrating break, and the race leader was left struggling in his wake. Mountains leader Danielson was nowhere to be seen; he would cross nearly two minutes down on the day.
Leipheimer would not catch Sutherland, but he didn’t need to. A solid time trialist, he just wanted to get an early start on defending his Pro Challenge title in the race of truth in Denver.
The Omega Pharma rider now leads the race by nine seconds over Vande Velde, while van Garderen sank to third at 21 seconds.
But Leipheimer isn’t counting his prize money quite yet.
“Well, I’m pleased to have this jersey on my shoulders for the moment and I’ll wear it proudly tomorrow, (but) anything can happen,” he said. “I’ve won some big TTs in my career. But Tejay is coming of age, he’s probably the best grand-tour rider we have in the U.S. right now, with his fifth place in the Tour. There’s no denying he can TT right now.
“I’m extremely motivated, like I said, and this jersey will give me some extra power tomorrow.”
And van Garderen wasn’t waving a white flag. He said “it’s possible” to make up the lost time and take back the yellow jersey.
“It’s going to take an incredible ride, but I think I can still win this race,” he added.
• Dombrowski retained the jersey of the best young rider — and moved into fourth overall at 21 seconds, tied on time with van Garderen.
• Likewise, Farrar retained the green sprint jersey.
• Sutherland took the jersey for the most aggressive rider.
• And Voigt donned the red jersey after clinching the mountains competition, three points ahead of Colorado. Danielson sank to third. Said Voigt: “I never really thought about that because I believe I was third this morning, missing 10-15 points — but apparently it ended up on my shoulders, so hey, I’ll take it. I hope they bring me back next year, and I hope we can have one more stage up to this climb.”
Editor’s note: Stay tuned for more from Boulder and the USA Pro Challenge.