Chris Schneider/Associated Press
The race to win the 2012 USA Pro Cycling Challenge came down to the last mile in the 683-mile, seven-stage race across colorful Colorado.
In a fitting to a conclusion to a bike race that produced drama every day – starting last Monday in Durango - Christian Vande Velde of Colorado-based Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda came from behind in the final 9.5-mile individual time trial on the streets of downtown Denver on Sunday afternoon to win the overall title.
Vande Velde’s inspiring final ride and a finish time of 17 minutes and 38 seconds elevated him past challenger Tejay van Garderen of BMC Racing and defending champion Levi Leipheimer of Omega Pharma-QuickStep, who had held the yellow jersey entering Sunday’s final stage.
“The team did the heavy lifting for me,” Vande Velde said after collecting his first major victory in five years. “The team took all the pressure off my shoulders.”
Vande Velde, 38, said Garmin’s attack-attack-attack strategy worked this week because his teammates, including Tom Danielson (who was named the most aggressive rider of the 2012 USA Pro Challenge), set him up for victory in Sunday’s time trial.
“I just didn’t go fast enough (Sunday),” Leipheimer said after he finished ninth in the time trial, dropping to third in the general classification, 24 seconds behind Vande Velde.
Van Garderen, 24, finished third in the time trial and collected second place overall after finishing third overall a year ago.
BMC’s Taylor Phinney of Boulder, who recently finished fourth in the Olympic time trial and fourth in the Olympic road race, won Sunday’s time trial in a blazing 17:25. But Vande Velde was a close second, just 13 seconds behind Phinney. His composite time topped van Garderen.
“I just kept getting better and better after a crash the first day,” Phinney said of a spill he took in the first mile of the race last Monday in Durango.
“I struggled a lot in the third stage (into Aspen). I nearly pulled the plug, but I got through it,” he said. “And I had an amazying day (Saturday) riding through Boulder,” he said.
The course took him past his high school twice.
“Panther Pride, baby,” the second-generation Boulder native said of his Boulder High School Panthers.
Phinney averaged a staggering 32.7 mph over Sunday’s undulating course that started and finished in Denver’s Civic Center Park.
“I just tried to keep my speed up and get the win,” he said. “I’m beyond excited to have won (Sunday).”
The first person to congratulate overall winner Vande Velde in the finish area Sunday was teammate Danielson, the Boulder-based Garmin rider who attacked in the first three stages of the race, eventually winning the Silver Queen Stage into Aspen with a dramatic solo ride.
“After riding in the USA Pro Challenge last year, our team really had to look at a different strategy,” said Danielson, a Fort Lewis College graduate and former national collegiate mountain bike champion.
“We all came together, and we all looked each other in the eye down in Durango. We all saw we were in good form, and we said we’re going to make a plan, and we’re going to stick to that plan.”
The attack plan worked.
“Look at those courses. Those are hard courses to do what we did,” Danielson said.
“The biggest thing is we came together as a team. We all came up with objectives, and we never second-guessed ourselves,” said Danielson, wearing his most aggressive rider’s jersey awarded for best overall effort throughout the week.
Danielson capped the 2012 USA Pro Challenge by finishing fifth in the time trial (17:54); he was third before van Garderen and Vande Velde’s ride. He was seventh in the overall standings.
“I went out there and did something I’ve never done in my life ... super-aggressive, and I raced fearless,” said Danielson, who loudly was cheered at the start gate, then playfully encouraged his fans to cheer louder by pumping his right hand in the air.
His victory in Aspen, helped by teammate David Zabriskie, was “definitley the best moment of my career,” Danielson said.
Garmin teammate Tyler Farrar collected the sprinter’s jersey for the tour along with two stage wins (in Telluride and in Colorado Springs).
Garmin, as a team, had three stage wins and, of course, the coveted yellow jersey.
Jens Voigt of Germany (RadioShack-Nissan-Trek) won the King of the Mountains competition at age 40. He won the stage from Aspen to Beaver Creek in a long, solo breakaway, and he took the climber’s jersey from Danielson on the penultimate stage.
Twenty-one-year-old Joe Dombrowski of Virginia (Bontrager Livestrong) was named the best young rider of the USA Pro Challenge. He finished 10th in the general classification.
“It was just such a memorable experience, and to do it in Colorado where our team has so many ties ... it’s a beautiful thing,” Danielson said.
“I think we gave a show to everyone out there that no one expected.”
Cliff Vancura/Durango Herald