VAIL, Colorado (VN) — If you watched stage 3 of the USA Pro Challenge, you likely noticed the blue streaks of an attacking Tom Danielson high on the slopes of Monarch Pass, as he attempted to ride away from the field. If you caught the final stage of the Tour of Utah a few weeks earlier, you probably saw the bright red charge of Cadel Evans as he churned his way over the top of Empire Pass in pursuit of his second stage win.
And if you were watching closely, you would have seen the bright orange helmet and whirling yellow socks of Carter Jones on either of those days, pedaling alongside some of the world’s strongest riders.
Jones (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) climbed beside Evans (BMC Racing) in Utah’s final stage, over the top of the precipitous Empire Pass, as the two rallied to bring back a trio of the world’s best climbers: Danielson (Garmin-Sharp), Chris Horner, and Winner Anacona (both Lampre-Merida).
At the Pro Challenge, nearly 11,000 feet above sea level on stage 3, Jones threw down his own attacks in response to Danielson’s ill-fated efforts, contending for the win amongst a group of elite protagonists, including Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), and Matthew Busche (Trek Factory Racing).
In the rare opportunities he’s had as a domestic Continental pro to face off against the WorldTour elite, Jones has been one of the mightiest challengers for almost two full seasons.
First in the King of the Mountain classification at the 2013 Amgen Tour of California. Eighth overall at the 2013 Tour of Utah. First overall at the 2014 Tour of the Gila. Seventh overall at the 2014 Tour of Utah. And now he sits eighth at the 2014 USA Pro Challenge with one stage left.
It’s been a steady, skyward ride.
“I just set my goals on improving over last year, looking for improvement year to year,” Jones said. “Frankly, I surprised myself last year. I was like, ‘Oh, I can climb.’ Climbing is all about confidence. Luckily, I was able to gain that confidence, ‘Ok, I can climb with these guys.’ That was kind of at [Utah] last year. And I proved it again at Colorado last year, and California this year. So I want to improve upon that — last year I was definitely hanging on in the climbs. This year, I’d like to be more a part of the race rather than surviving.”
Climbing beside Evans, Danielson, and van Garderen would constitute being a part of the race in most people’s eyes. But for the New Jersey native, it still hasn’t been enough.
After his performance on stage 7 in Utah, Jones seemed more placid than elated. After losing time to the main contenders after stages 2 and 3 in Colorado, he couldn’t really see the positive side. He just wanted more.
Anyone who is left unsatisfied by hanging with a Tour de France champion, in Evans, on one of the toughest climbs in the U.S., on Empire Pass (which is nearly equivalent in length and gradient to the much-feared Angliru in Spain), has the heart of a champion. But can he become a champion?
“Just seeing how motivated, and how focused, and how driven he is, is really impressive to me,” said Optum teammate Jesse Anthony. “He’s working so hard with his future in mind — I’m not exactly sure what his goals are; every kid that age wants to get to the WorldTour — and I really hope he gets an opportunity to do that and race some really big races.”
But the WorldTour?
“I’m talking to a lot of teams… my goal is to get to the WorldTour,” Jones said. “Who knows? At this point, I’m riding as well as I can; I’m doing everything I can. It’s just a matter of the stars aligning.”
His consistency may be his greatest strength, but the flash and drama of a great result — a stage win, or an overall podium at one of the three big American stage races — may go farther toward convincing a WorldTour team that he has what it takes to ride at the next level.
His time trial performance on Saturday at the Pro Challenge wasn’t exactly what he hoped for. He dropped one place, to eighth overall, behind Ben Hermans (BMC Racing). But he fights on.
Someone who knows Jones well, Omer Kem, sport director for the Bissell Development team, and someone who directed Jones for three years before the team became a development program, wasn’t sure that the WorldTour was the only place for Jones.
“You look at what he is doing, you look at what [Serghei] Tvetcov is doing, you look at what [Joey] Rosskopf is doing: In another year, Continental teams are going to be winning these races,” said Kem. “Because the WorldTour teams come here tired, with a bunch of guys that don’t want to be here. There’s a career here for these guys in the U.S. because the TV [coverage] is getting better, there’s more and more money coming in, there’s more sponsors that are interested because you have four or five events that are live in TV every day for a week. That’s a lot of exposure. Carter has made those incremental gains. I’m proud to say I was able to take him on and devoted a lot to him.”
If the stars align and Jones heads to the roads of Europe, or if he stays in the U.S. and continues on as a Continental stand out, be sure to watch for him beside the best climbers in the world, whether they’re wearing bright red, royal blue, or any color in between.