After 60 miles of intense bike racing, the Aspen/Snowmass Circuit Race came down to a final sprint down Aspen’s Main Street on Monday afternoon — a duel between two Boulder buddies.
Alex Howes, riding for Garmin-Sharp, forced his way to the front of the speeding lead peloton as the cyclists made the final turn around the Hotel Jerome with 200 meters to go to the finish. His tight right-hand turn put him into the lead of the opening stage of the 2014 USA Pro Challenge.
With the finish canopy in sight and the crowd roaring, Kiel Reijnen of the UnitedHealthcare team followed Howes’ back wheel, pulled out of the slipstream with 100 meters to go and sprinted past the Garmin rider for the stage victory — celebrating with his raised right arm.
“I needed it to be a tough race,” Reijnen said after he donned the yellow leader’s jersey with his first stage win in the USA Pro Challenge. The 28-year-old Boulder resident said he needed his teammates to push the temp on the final of three laps on the 20-mile circuit course.
“The boys did an amazing job,” Reijnen said. “I owe this victory to them.”
He credited teammate Danny Summerhill, who was in the race’s early seven-rider breakaway, with moving him into position at the critical Medicine Bow left-hand turn off of Brush Creek Road on the last lap.
“Danny ... was in the breakaway, and he came back to help me,” Reijnen said as he praised his UnitedHealthcare teammate. “Danny did an amazing pull. And we had Lucas (Euser) to help.”
With the breakneck pace tiring the sprinters and sending them back through the field, Reijnen said he realized as they charged through Aspen’s West End that the stage would come down to a test of two riders who are regular training buddies in Boulder.
“When I saw Alex (Howes) go ... I knew that could have been the race,” Reijnen said.
This time, Reijnen won the sprint against his neighborhood rival.
“It’s usually 50-50; we’re dead even (in practice),” Howes said, adding that he and Reijnen train together “pretty much every day. I knew he would be a good rider (Monday).”
But Howes, too, had his chance at victory, bopping himself on the helmet in frustration at the finish line.
“There’s no one I’d rather lose a bike race to than him (Howes), and I think he feels the same way about me,” Reijnen said. “I was really happy he was on the podium with me.”
Ben Hermans of BMC, a 28-year-old rider from Belgium, completed the podium in third place.
Howes said the race had a relaxed pace for the first 20 miles, even though seven riders broke clear.
“On the last lap, it really heated up,” said Howes, who grew up in Golden.
Reijnen saved his best punch for the final stretch on Main Street.
“I guess we punched each other today,” Howes said of the Boulder twosome who took a boxing class last year and literally “punched each other.”
“I think we both gave our all,” Reijnen said.
Summerhill, Reijnen’s UnitedHealthcare teammate, was named the most aggressive rider for Monday’s stage. He’ll wear the most aggressive rider jersey today when the riders start stage 2 in Aspen at 11 a.m.
Reijnen said Monday’s circuit race set up for his victory because of the nature of the course itself — short, punchy climbs at elevation and a relentless pace requiring precise teamwork. He averaged 24.8 miles per hour over the 61-mile race.
“Chaos suits our team and me in particular,” he said. “And I’ve got a great team supporting me.”
Overall USA Pro Challenge favorites Tejay van Garderen of BMC and Tommy Danielson of Garmin Sharp finished safely in the second group Monday.
Van Garderen, the defending champion and an Aspen resident, crossed in 11th place, 12 seconds behind the winner.
Danielson, coming off his second consecutive overall title in the Tour of Utah, also was 12 seconds back in 16th.
Aspen native Keegan Swirbul, the 18-year-old riding for the Bissell Development Team, also safely completed Monday’s Aspen/Snowmass Circuit Race.
Riding in front of a large contingent of local fans, Swirbul finished 3:34 back of the winner in 82nd position.