Tejay van Garderen showed why he’s the defending USA Pro Challenge winner with a thrilling mountaintop finish in Stage 3 of the race Wednesday. This year’s fifth-place finisher in the Tour de France won the stage and took the general classification, or GC, lead with the win.
After staying with the leaders for much of the day, Garmin-Sharp’s Alex Howes — the GC leader going into the stage — was unable to hold on for the final climb. With less than 4 miles to go Howes dropped deep into the pack, eventually falling back to 1 minute, 45 seconds behind van Garderen in the GC hunt. Following consecutive second place stage finishes, Howes only had a 12 second lead on van Garderen in the overall at the start of the stage.
With two big climbs on Monarch Pass it was a day that was expected to create some separation in the GC race, but with alternating leaders and occasional breaks the top 20 riders kept the race close until the final 19-mile climb between Salida (7,080 feet) and Monarch Mountain Ski Area (10,820 feet). Van Garderen bided his time throughout with his BMC teammates setting the tone for the final half of the stage.
“I felt pretty well under control today,” van Garderen said after the race. “The team rode incredibly again. I’m glad I was able to take the jersey.”
Van Garderen’s strategic surge came in the race’s final 2 miles with Tour de France King of the Mountain jersey winner Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) tight on his rear wheel. The pair crossed the finish of the 96-mile stage in 3:50:41, followed by the Jelly Belly team’s Serghei Tvetcov. Boulder’s Tom Danielson (Garmin Sharp) — a pre-race favorite in the GC along with van Garderen — finished fifth after a number of attacks that gave him the lead late in the final climb. Danielson stayed in GC contention and is currently 34 seconds behind van Garderen in fourth place headed into Thursday’s Stage 4.
After the start in Gunnison, the Garmin-Sharp team set the tone early during Wednesday’s stage with the first climb over Monarch Pass (11,312 feet). While the peloton stayed tight on the climb with the Garmin team setting the pace, Danielson’s teammate and Columbian climbing specialist Janier Acevedo created an early break jumping 40 seconds ahead of the pack through most of the climb, at one point building his lead to 1:05. The tight grouping chasing Acevedo blew up near the top of the pass with the lead break of seven catching Acevedo, followed by two chase groups and the rest of the peloton. The 8-man break included Danielson, van Garderen, Acevedo, Majka and his Australian teammate Michael Rogers. Following the long decent from Monarch the lead group headed toward Salida for two laps through downtown. During the flat stretch through town, Rodgers pushed ahead into a one-man break eventually building a 1:30 lead over the closest chase group. As the race circled Salida the two chase groups merged into a 24-man pack followed by the rest of the peloton which eventually dropped to 4:20 behind the lead. With Rogers continually looking over his shoulder the chase group — lead by BMC — continued to gain ground leaving Salida bound for the final 19-mile climb to Monarch Mountain Ski Area.
Unable to maintain, Rogers dropped from contention early in the climb.
In the final 6 miles, a number of riders made attack attempts as the lead pack continued to thin. Acevedo and former Columbian teammate Daniel Jaramillo (Jamis-Hagens Berman) paired up for one of the final stretch’s more exciting attacks. Tom Danielson also made a few solo attempts that he was unable to sustain before van Garderen’s winning push.
“His attacks at first were really strong,” van Garderen said of Danielson’s attempts, “and they got a bit weaker toward the top of the climb, so I figured he was getting tired.”
The race continues Thursday with a 4-lap circuit course for Stage 4 in Colorado Springs and will conclude Sunday in Denver. Van Garderen has a 20 second lead over Majka in the GC, followed by BMC teammate Ben Hermans (+0:23), Danielson (+0:34) and Tvetcov (+0:37).
After a dealing with weather related complications and a short delay during a messy Stage 2, Wednesday’s race was held without incident under sunny skies.
When reached for comment following the stage, race CEO Shawn Hunter said, “Today’s stage was everything we could have hoped for — the fans were incredible, the weather was beautiful, and the racing was intense and exciting to watch.”