Chris Council/Aspen Daily News
Chris Council/Aspen Daily News
Score one for the Ned Overend of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge.
Ageless wonder Jens Voigt of Germany, the oldest cyclist in the field at age 40, left the rest of the peloton behind on Independence Pass and pedaled to a historic victory Thursday in Stage 4 of Colorado’s second annual stage race.
Voigt, one of the most popular cyclists in the international peloton, rode solo for 90 miles of the 97-mile stage to take his first victory in two seasons, crossing the finish line at Beaver Creek Resort to a huge ovation after starting the stage in Aspen.
The relentless German known for his favorite phrase, “Shut up, legs,” shut out the field with a victory that was heralded by fans and fellow racers alike. The huge crowd at the uphill finish acknowledged Voigt’s victory with a deafening roar, cowbells clanging like it was a World Cup ski race.
“Jens is the only guy in the world who could pull that off,” said Tejay van Garderen of Boulder (BMC), who took the overall yellow leader’s jersey by finishing third in Thursday’s stage.
“He stuck it; that’s pretty impressive,” the 24-year-old van Garderen said of Voigt, who nearly is 17 years his senior.
Van Garderen, while taking the yellow back from Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda’s Christian Vande Velde, still shares the same time with his Garmin rival, who finished sixth Thursday.
“I surprise myself a little, I have to admit,” Voigt said. “It was an all-in move,” he said.
If he had failed in his long, solo break, he said he would have been labeled a “dumb ass.”
But he avoided the Beavis and Butthead reference when his confident break just five miles into the race paid the ultimate dividend some 3 hours and 45 minutes later.
“I quickly realized I was on top of it,” he said as he left downtown Aspen on an overcast Thursday morning. “It was like someone talking to me, saying, ‘Jens, go now. Go now.’”
And he did.
Voight, 6-2 and 169 pounds, climbed Independence Pass to 12,095 feet – solo.
He raced down the tricky east side descent – solo.
He battled crosswinds and headwinds pedaling toward Leadville and Tennessee Pass – solo.
He summited Battle Mountain – solo.
And he finished – solo - with a triumphant final climb up to the ski village of Beaver Creek from the town of Avon, 1,000 feet below in the Vail Valley.
Nature, Voigt said, provided crucial assistance.
With the weather turning wet and cold halfway through Thursday’s stage, Voigt perked up.
“Whatever makes the race nasty is good for me because I believe it hurts the others more than me,” said Voigt, nicknamed the “King of Pain.”
“I kept saying, ‘Rain is good; rain is good. It hurts everyone’s morale but mine,” the proud father of six said.
When the rain started, he learned the peloton had slowed to pick up rain gear.
“And then they went to follow nature’s call, if you know what I mean. That gave me an extra minute, and I said, ‘This is doable,’” said Voigt, who was updated on the time gaps by the manager in his team car.
His confidence soared.
“I felt ... the only thing that could stop me was a deer running out of the forest and into my bike,” said Voigt, a three-time stage winner in the Tour de France.
“And I kept reminding myself, ‘It’s a short stage; it’s a short stage. I can do it,’” he said.
A professional cyclist since 1997, Thursday’s victory was the 88th of his career. The native of Berlin has evolved into one of the most beloved cyclists in the world – evidenced by the huge gathering of fans Voigt drew in Durango last week at an autograph session at 2nd Avenue Sports.
Asked about his international popularity, Voigt answered as if he was on his bicycle.
“I worked 20 years to get there,” he said.
It’s easy to have a positive attitude when you ride bikes for a living, he said.
“I had a chance to turn my passion into my profession.”
For his victory, Voigt - he of the Overend-like victory - was presented a lifetime season ski pass to Beaver Creek Resort by World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn, who lives in the Vail area.
Overend is Durango’s Bicycle Hall of Fame legend who dominated all disciplines of bicycle racing into his 50s.
Overend, also a popular international cyclist, won the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic road race from Durango to Silveton for a record fifth time in 2011 at age 55.
Behind Voigt’s solo break Thursday, the drama of the stage rode in the chase peloton and the battle for key seconds in the overall standings.
Van Garderen, who lost the yellow jersey to Vande Velde in a tiebreaker ruling in Aspen on Wednesday, pushed to the front of the chase peloton where he eventually crossed the finish line in third place.
Andreas Klöden of Switzerland, a RadioShack-Nissan-Trek teammate of Voigt’s, finished second.
Defending USA Pro Challenge champion Levi Leipheimer of California (Omega-Pharma) finished fourth in the stage. He’s also fourth overall, just 8 seconds back of van Garderen and Vande Velde.
Russian Ivan Rovny stands third overall, 6 seconds back.
Tom Danielson of Boulder, the Fort Lewis College cyclist who won Wednesday’s Queen Stage from Gunnison to Aspen, is in eighth place overall after Thursday’s stage. He’s 15 seconds behind the leaders.
Danielson retained the King of the Mountain climber’s jersey for his Garmin team after riding in the peloton for much of the day. He offered late attacks out of the peloton at the close of the stage.
Van Garderen and the BMC squad will take the yellow jersey into Friday’s fifth stage, a 117.9-mile trek from Breckenridge to Colorado Springs via Hoosier Pass, Fairplay and Woodland Park.
“It’s an honor to be in the leader’s jersey in my home state,” said van Garderen, who was born in Montana but has lived in Colorado for most of his career. He’s married to Aspen native Jessica Phillips, a former pro cyclist who produced the women’s pro criterium in Aspen on Wednesday.
“I love racing here,” he said, and he’s excited about Saturday’s stage that ends in his hometown Boulder and Sunday’s final time trial in downtown Denver.
Asked if he saw anyone riding under the radar who might step up and take over the USA Pro Challenge, van Garderen had an instant reply.
“Levi,” he said quickly.
“Levi (Leipheimer) is in good shape. He’s looking really fit. ... It’s Levi,” van Garderen repeated of the reigning USA Pro Cycling Challenge overall champion, who is a proven rider at altitude.
After all, don’t forget it was Leipheimer that broke Lance Armstrong’s record in the altitude-intensive Leadville 100 mountain bike race.