CRESTED BUTTE, Colorado (VN) — Tejay van Garderen looks solid. Tom Danielson suffered in the rain and mud over Kebler Pass, but sits nine seconds behind the defending champion. Danielson’s Garmin-Sharp teammate, Alex Howes, is in the race lead, 11 seconds over BMC’s Ben Hermans. And if Rafal Majka is going to crack in the high mountains, he’s not showing any signs, though he’s now 32 seconds behind on the GC. Trek Factory’s Matthew Busche, 13 seconds down, is the only rider in the top five overall that does not ride for either BMC Racing or Garmin-Sharp.
These are a few of the GC conclusions after two stages of the USA Pro Challenge, as it heads into a summit finish atop Monarch Mountain on Wednesday.
While Keil Reijnen (UnitedHealthcare) and Robin Carpenter (Hincapie Sportswear) each upset the WorldTour teams to take the first two stage wins, the battle for the overall is shaping up into a battle not just between van Garderen and Danielson, but between BMC Racing and Garmin-Sharp, with Busche and Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) very much wildcards.
Howes sits in the race lead after finishing second on the opening stage, taking three seconds over Hermans and 12 over van Garderen, and then finishing second again on stage 2, seven seconds behind Carpenter and immediately in front of van Garderen. Hermans sits second, with van Garderen third, Busche fourth, and Danielson fifth, 22 seconds down.
The big races on American soil are often a battle between the two biggest American teams. Garmin won the Pro Challenge in 2012, with Christian Vande Velde ahead of van Garderen; van Garderen won the race last year, with Danielson in third. In the last three editions of the Amgen Tour of California, BMC has one it once, in 2013, while Garmin has twice finished second, in 2012 and 2014.
BMC’s Peter Stetina said the underlying GC rivalry between the two teams became crystal clear on stage 1, after Howes and Reijnen went up the road.
“They’re watching us, and we’re watching them,” Stetina said. “It was a confusing finish on stage 1, because it was selective only at the very end, and then it became tactical. We had a moment where we didn’t cover Howes’ and Kiel’s move at the very end. Then Ben got up the road, and we were riding for Tejay, so we weren’t sure, do we chase Ben down, and keep Tejay in the same time, or let him go for the stage?
“It ended up we got stuck in the middle. Tejay lost a few seconds, but it wasn’t bad, and all the guys we’re really worried about on GC were right with us. We surprised ourselves. We had five guys in the top 25, we didn’t even know what to do with our numbers, because we’re here to ride the GC for Tejay, but then we started to think maybe we should hit the stage. Now we know you should never give up the opportunity to win a stage. We’ll look for redemption now.”
Danielson said that Garmin found itself in a similar, confused situation on stage 1, with Howes up the road, attacking for the stage win, and Hermans following suit. Two weeks ago Hermans finished second to Danielson on a summit finish at the Tour of Utah, and finished that race fourth overall, 1:46 behind Danielson.
“We learned a lot abut BMC tactics, that they’re willing to send guys up the road,” Danielson said. “We had a team plan [on stage 1] and we didn’t exactly stick to it. We wanted Alex to go for the stage, but we also wanted to control the front group, so I was hoping there would be more (teammates) that could help, because there were a lot of BMCs up there, and Hermans went away with Alex when he attacked. He’s a guy we didn’t want getting time.”
After stage 2, Hermans was content with the team’s GC status. “We wanted to win the stage with Tejay,” Hermans said. “The plan was that Tejay could go for the stage and I would watch the moves of Tom Danielson and the other dangerous guys. At the end, I dropped Danielson and Busche and the other guys were behind. So I think we did a good job with the team.”
Stetina added that Majka and Frank Schleck should not be counted out as overall threats, though he said that at the start of stage 2, before Schleck lost 3:35 in Crested Butte.
“I think Majka is the real deal. You can never cancel these guys out. Frank Schleck, too. But I think in terms of overall team power, that’s still where it lies [between Garmin and BMC]. In the U.S races, both teams really care about this. Tejay and I are both Colorado natives, and Garmin has a lot of natives, and the team has Colorado roots. Every year it comes down between these two teams. But these guys are really strong. Majka especially.”
Majka said he would use the rivalry between Garmin and BMC to his advantage.
“For sure, they are the strong teams,” Majka said. “[On stage 1], I was alone because my guys were suffering in the altitude. So was I, but still I finished in the front group.”
Van Garderen said that, for the moment, he views Howes, Busche, and Carter Jones (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies), all as threats to the GC.
“The big surprise has been Leopold Konig (NetApp-Endura] losing time,” van Garderen said. “He said he got a little sick a couple days ago, but I wasn’t expecting him to lose so much time on a day like [stage 1]. Majka’s looking good. Danielson’s looking good. And even a couple of the guys who might have been second-tier contenders were able to snag a few seconds, like Matt Busche, Carter Jones and Alex Howes.”
Howes, however, said he had no ambitions of racing for the overall win. “I have no hopes or dreams of crushing [the stage 6] time trial. I can’t time trial my way out of a wet paper bag. They will do their thing and hopefully I will pass this along to Tommy D. tomorrow.”
Asked if the GC would ultimately come down to a battle between BMC and Garmin, van Garderen said it was too soon to make that call.
“It’d be a mistake to discount Majka, or even [NetApp rider] Tiago Machato would be a mistake to underestimate. Obviously being in our hometown, there’s big motivation for Danielson and I. But it’s more than a two-horse race.”