Tejay van Garderen (BMC) won stage 3 of the USA Pro Challenge with his peerless climbing prowess.
On the climb to Monarch Mountain, he also rode his way into the GC lead at the Colorado tour.
An elite group of GC contenders entered the final ascent up the east side of Monarch Pass at the end of a 96-mile stage from Gunnison to Monarch Mountain. As the race climbed to 10,000 feet above sea level, the leaders traded jabs to little effect.
First, Janier Acevedo (Garmin-Sharp) and Daniel Jaramillo (Jamis-Hagens Berman) went. Then it was Bruno Pires (Tinkoff-Saxo). Carter Jones (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) and Matthew Busche (Trek Factory Racing) also tried their hands at solo moves.
But none of them stuck until the lead group saw the red kite, and van Garderen dealt the most decisive blow, followed only by Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo). Though this year’s Tour de France king of the mountains tried to overtake the American on the final ramp, van Garderen found another gear, won the stage, and earned himself the yellow jersey.
“I don’t know that [attack] wasn’t really the plan,” said van Garderen. “We were kind of thinking, ‘let’s just keep it on same time,’ and you know because I’m pretty confident for the TT, but when I saw Danielson’s attacks were getting weaker toward the end, I could sense he was getting a little tired, and I just went for it.
“[Majka] is definitely a strong rider, not only for the overall but also for the stage. Yeah, [he] was definitely a concern. … I was actually really surprised because he’s pretty quick to the line, I didn’t think I was actually gonna be able to stick it there [to win].
“GC is the most important [for me], but if you have a chance for a stage [win] you’re not going to give it away.”
Behind Majka, Serghei Tvetcov (Jelly Belly) finished third.
Race splits on early climb
The day’s flat, early miles saw a number of ill-fated attacks that rarely got more than 10 seconds’ advantage on the field.
Things finally got serious at around 31 miles into the race, when Garmin-Sharp’s Acevedo wound up the pace and got a slight advantage.
The elevated pace at the base of the west side of Monarch pass saw a small group of about 15 separate from the front of the peloton.
Acevedo’s lead grew to 1:15 on the long category 1 climb.
However, the chase group, which had been pared down to seven, caught the leader just before the day’s first king of the mountains sprint.
The front group included: Ben Hermans (BMC), van Garderen, Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp), Jones, Majka, Acevedo, Pawel Poljanski (Tinkoff-Saxo), and Michael Rogers (Tinkoff-Saxo).
Hermans was first over the top of Monarch Pass, followed by Danielson, then Poljanski in third.
As they reached Salida, a large chase group caught the breakaway, resulting in a group of 23 riders, including the day’s overall leader, Alex Howes (Garmin-Sharp).
With 32 miles to go, Rogers set out alone, making a solo breakaway on the Salida circuit.
With a confused chase group, the gap went out to 25 seconds.
“Obviously I had to have a go,” said Rogers. “There was a bit of confusion there … what, you know, the teams wanted to do. Obviously Garmin rode very aggressively the first time up the climb. [They] had two, we had three. Ideally it would have better if someone had come with me, or two guys. … It was tough out there with the headwind.”
Lucas Euser (UnitedHealthcare) and Jaramillo tried to bridge but were brought back by the main chase group at the end of the circuits in Salida. By that point, Rogers had a 1:30 lead.
Showdown on Monarch Mountain
BMC set tempo into the final climb with all four riders taking the front of the chase.
Coming into the final eight miles of the day, Rogers’ gap began dropping precipitously. Sure enough, the chase, led by BMC’s Michael Schär, made the catch with 5.3 miles to go.
Acevedo and Jaramillo attacked with 3.9 miles to go.
Brent Bookwalter (BMC) kept the tempo high as the two Colombians dangled off the front. They were soon brought back to the group.
Then, Jaramillo went to the front again, winding up the pace for a moment, then causing the lead riders to look at each other, opening the door for another attack from Acevedo. That move was also to no avail.
As the pace fluctuated, Howes was dropped with 3.6 miles to go.
Pires was next to go, but he never got a significant gap over the lead group. The high altitude, steady grade, and headwind all contributed to cautious racing tactics among the GC favorites.
But with three miles to go, Danielson tried to make another move. Hermans quickly jumped on his wheel, not letting a gap grow.
Jones went next, with the same result as all the earlier moves on the climb.
With the lead group reeling from the flurry of attacks, Busche made an attack that finally stuck. Tinkoff-Saxo quickly went to the front to chase back the seven-second gap.
The former U.S. national champion was brought back with one mile to go.
“There was a big lull at 3k to go, and I decided I should try something,” said Busche. “I got a gap. I don’t really know what happened behind, but when they came by, I saw Tinkoff pulling full gas, so I don’t think there’s anything different I could have done. I basically went all in. Sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t, At least I tried.
“[I’m] happy that I tried but a little disappointed that I lost something [on GC] in the end, but I guess better to go down fighting than go down without trying. It’s not over … long race yet.”
As Majka’s final teammate pulled off the front with one kilometer to go, van Garderen attacked, and only Majka could follow.
The defending USA Pro Challenge champion drove the pace up the final incline, leading out Majka through the final right hand bend up to Monarch Mountain.
Though the Pole tried to swing around van Garderen’s left side, he could not match the BMC rider’s final kick.
“Today the final was really fast,” said Majka, “and for the win I tried to pass Tejay, but he is too strong for me. I am a little tired with the Tour, Poland, and now Colorado.”
Van Garderen now leads Majka on GC by 20 seconds. Hermans sits third, 23 seconds behind, and Danielson and Tvetcov round out the top-five in fourth and fifth, respectively.
“My biggest advantage is the time trial and to already have as solid buffer going into that that gives me a lot of confidence,” said van Garderen. “Majka is looking strong and my teammate Hermans is looking strong.
“I love being home [in Colorado]. I love this race. Every year I’ve done this race, I’ve taken away something from it. I look forward to this race every year … yeah, this is awesome.”
Thursday, the peloton will face a punchy 70-mile circuit race in Colorado Springs, through the Garden of the Gods.