12 observations from the US Pro Cycling Challenge.
Just back from Colorado and home in California with a pinot noir in hand. Here are some things we took away from the best stage race we’ve ever seen outside France.
1 Tom Danielson of Garmin-Sharp is a new man — funnier, more relaxed, less stressed and more aggressive. His breakaway win in Aspen represented a transformation from a rider who calculates odds to one who attacks on instinct. Our observation is that somehow all the years of working with sports psychologists finally paid off. As Vaughters told us after the win, Danielson “has quite a career ahead of him as a breakaway rider.”
2 Jens Voigt saved RadioShack Nissan-Trek’s rear end in Colorado. Voigt is a one man anti-negativity force field. With his long solo win in Beaver Creek, he almost erased an entire season of bad luck, poor results, team discord and assorted disasters from missing paychecks to Andy Schlecks cracked pelvis to Frank’s doping positive in Le Grand Shindig. Jen’s signature quote and life philosophy is “shut up legs.” His wildly applauded win shut up all the naysayers and team critics.
3 Rory Sutherland is playing a new game. Like Tom Danielson, Sutherland has had a change of heart and race tactics. For the last two years, he and his UnitedHeathcare squad have been trying to crack the GC podium in California and Colorado. A tough ask given he’s going up against the ProTeam guys who have a greater ability to recover, having ridden a few grand tours. Starting in Utah, Sutherland decided to focus on stage wins and his decisive win on the summit finish of Flagstaff — in front of his home Boulder crowds — is a career highlight.
4 Levi Leipheimer was handicapped by a lack of team support. It seemed bizarre that Omega Pharma Quickstep chose to only send five riders to help Levi in his bid to repeat his GC triumph of last year. That went down to four when Francesco Chicchi DNF’d. At times we had the impression that Leipheimer’s team was an under-funded Continental squad. There was something symbolic about Leipheimer doing his critical pre-time trial warm-up — with final victory on the line — inside the red Specialized container ship display space. As he pedaled furiously, he looked like some kind of “live” marketing exhibit. By all appearances, the California bike sponsor was making more of an effort to support Leipheimer than Omega Pharma.
5 Crowds were down this year and we wonder why — over-protective park service officials or overly careful race organizers? Last year the crowds at the top of Independence Pass — the queen stage out of Gunnison — blew people’s minds. This time around they banned camping on independence and pretty much the only way up was on foot or bike. That decision cuts your fan base down to those fit enough to bike the 2.5 hours up the tough climb from Aspen, for example. For two days, media were not allowed on the race course. Two days! Nor was there any shuttle service to get writers and photographers up to the pass to witness the excitement. Inexcusable. Sure Boulder, Golden, Denver and Crested Butte delivered big numbers but everybody noticed the drop. We’ve covered three tour of California and two Tour de Frances and when space is limited, they figure a way to get you up. Twisted Spoke thinks somebody got scared after last years overwhelming fan response and over-reacted.
6 Tyler Farrar is back to top speed. Now, that’s not Mark Cavendish speed or even Peter Sagan speed but Farrar finally got his first win in over a year and put his phenomenal bad luck behind him. This guy is thoughtful, curious, down-to-earth and a genuine nice guy. But the Tour crashes and assorted misery appeared to have finally cracked him. He nearly went berserk when he charged over to the Argos Shimano bus to scream at their sprinter for cutting him off in a Tour stage in France. Garmin management basically said you need to chill, come back to the States, and get yourself a full reset. Two stage wins in Colorado go a long way to restoring his confidence and happiness.
7 RadioShack came to Colorado without a leader and it showed. The big ProTeam won the team competition — like they did at the Tour de France — but that was a booby prize yawn. Their GC hopes never got off the ground. While Garmin-Sharp went scorched earth from the gun, turning the race upside down with aggressive tactics, The Shack’s GC strategy seemed to be prayer-based — as in, we hope Chris Horner has some legs left or Matthew Busche isn’t too tired from his second place in Utah and maybe old Andreas Kloden can deliver a miracle. If Jens Voigt hadn’t single-handedly produced a fabulous stage win, we’d be using the word “invisible” to describe their efforts.
8 Joe Dombromski is the real deal. The 20 year old Bontrager-Livestrong rider showed the same confidence, power and aggression on the climb up Flagstaff that he demonstrated on Mount Baldy in the Tour of California. He attacked and drove it hard up Flagstaff. The next day he was dead in the Denver time trial but still managed a top 10 and the Best Young rider jersey. His ProTeam signing will be announced shortly and his progression has been amazing. The kicker is that team manager Axel Merckx thinks that besides the physical talent, Dombrowski is intelligent and learns fast. A young Tejay van Garderen.
9 It aint easy for the domestic riders to crack the grand tour boys. Only Pro Conti UnitedHealthcare and Rory Sutherland were able to win a stage. ProTour riders won the other six with Garmin taking three, BMC taking two and RadioShack-Jens-Voigt winning one. Look at the top ten on GC and only Dombrowski squeaked into the top ten. In fact, the domestic guys faired worse than last year on a harder race course that favors those with the extra recovery abilities that only riding a grand tour brings. Guys like Craig Lewis (Champion Systems) took their shots in breaks but to no avail.
10 No Viviani, no celebration. Last year in Colorado, Liquigas Cannondale dominated the sprints, with Elia Viviani taking two and Daniel Oss grabbing the final stage into Denver. This time around, Vincenzo Nibali spent a lot of time off the front doing his prep work for the Worlds but fell short of a stage victory. US Road Race champion and Colorado native Timmy Duggan gave it a great shot on Flagstaff finishing fifth. Bring Viviani or Sagan next year.
11 Garmin-Sharp turned the US Pro Cycling Challenge into the best week-long stage race in the US in forever. Sick and tired of the seconds and thirds on GC in California and Colorado, they came in with what argyle genius Jonathan Vaughters called a “damn the torpedoes” approach. Garmin blew the entire race wide open from stage one until the final stage 7 time trial where Christian Vande Velde stunned Levi Leipheimer in Denver. Tyler Farrar wins two sprint finishes and the sprinters jersey, Tom Danielson wins over Independence Pass in an inspired and transformational breakaway win by two seconds, and Vande Velde comes from behind to win the GC battle. A flawless and stunning display of aggressive team tactics and selfless teamwork. If there was a jersey for Best Teammate in the race it would go to Dave Zabriskie who worked in breaks until he vomited on the side of the road, then came back later to pace Danielson to his Aspen victory. Argyle chapeaus all around.
12 God bless the Colombians. Last year at the pre-race press conference in Colorado Springs, Tom Danielson called the Colombian riders “crazy.” He’d just come off the Tour of Utah where the South American guys had tried to kill everyone and Levi Leipheimer in particular. They almost succeeded and Sergio Henao (shortly to sign with Sky) took second overall. Well, the Gobernacion de Antioquia team didn’t make the trip this year (Henao gone, Sevilla suspended) but the EPM-UNE boys attacked whenever the gradient went over .0001%. Besides, Danielson himself seems to have adopted the go-for-broke attacking style and it paid off big. He’s now an honorary Colombian. We’ll see you loco guys next year.
13 The Tour of California needs to step up its route planning game. That’s tough for us to admit, having lived in Cali for 23 years but right now, Colorado is laying claim to best stage race in the States. California should win on the trifecta of mountains-oceanside coastline-metro grandeur but they need to rethink the route. Now, Colorado benefited hugely from Garmin-Sharp’s decision to attack, attack, attack but when Peter Sagan wins five stages in California, it’s back to the drawing board. The Rockies rocked harder.