Five days ago Garmin-Sharp rider Alex Howes, a Colorado native, stood at the finish of Stage 2 of the USA Pro Challenge noticeably upset by his second consecutive second-place stage finish. While he earned the yellow leader’s jersey in the process — which he held for a day — he was still clearly disappointed to fall short of yet another stage victory.
Howes found redemption in Sunday’s final stage, edging out training partner and friend Kiel Reijnen (United Healthcare) — who beat him in an almost equally tight finish for the Stage 1 victory — in a sprint finish in downtown Denver. Howes came from behind in the final 100 yards to beat Reijnen by mere inches in a photo finish.
“This race means a lot to me, obviously,” Howes told NBC Sports after the win. “It means a whole lot more now.”
As expected, Stage 7 did not shake up the overall standings, with Aspen’s Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) holding onto his 1 minute, 32 second lead over fellow Coloradan Tom Danielson for this second consecutive Pro Challenge GC win. Van Garderen finished the nearly 550-mile seven-day stage race in 20 hours, 5 minutes, 42 seconds. Serghei Tvetcov of Jelly Belly held onto third — 1:45 behind van Garderen — giving his UCI continental team its first podium finish in the event and topping fourth-place finisher and Tour de France King of the Mountain winner Rafal Majka by just 4 seconds.
“I’m feeling ecstatic,” Jelly Belly team manager Danny Van Haute said of his rider’s podium finish. “We are so happy with this whole week ... This is our biggest accomplishment in 14 years.”
Tvetcov was the only rider in the top four without Tour de France experience and who is not currently competing on the world tour level. His performance this week, which included three third-place stage finishes, is likely to earn him a contract with a UCI international team next year.
For his part, van Garderen put forth another impressive effort Sunday along with his BMC teammates on his way to back-to-back Pro Challenge wins.
With less than a half mile to go, he pulled into the lead of a tight group of riders on the final sprint — likely in an attempt to give his teammate Michael Schar a shot at the stage win. Howes’ and Reijnen’s last-second surges powered past the BMC pair in the final stretch. Schar held onto third — less than a bike length behind the top finishers — with van Garderen finishing the stage in sixth behind Tvetcov and Rafal Majka (Tinkoff Saxo).
Before the race’s final laps through Denver, 42-year-old fan favorite Jens Voigt (Trek Factory Team) set the tone with breakaway group of 12 other riders leaving Boulder. While other riders fell off the pace, Voigt — a 17-time Tour de France competitor — continued with the lead group for 73 miles of the stage’s 78-mile course.
The popular German announced earlier this year that he would retire following the Pro Challenge, and it looked as though he might do so with one final stage win to close his 17-year career. He climbed Lookout Mountain outside of Golden neck and neck with Australian Michael Rodgers and three other riders.
Shortly after reaching metropolitan Denver, only Voigt and Novo Nordisk rider Javier Megias remained in the break, with the rest of the peloton gaining ground in the chase. Voigt lead through three laps of the final downtown circuit before the chase group caught him in the stage’s 5 remaining miles. It was a scene that oddly replicated Stage 4 in Colorado Springs earlier in the week. There Voigt spent most of the stage in the lead, only to fall short at the end as well.
“I was happy I could show myself one more time. One more time I gave it all,” Voigt said in an interview with NBC after the race, “and now I think I have a long, big, large, huge holiday ahead of me.”
As for his decision to retire he told the network, “I guess my body, we could do maybe another year, but I wouldn’t be as strong and wouldn’t be as good as I was this year.”
Voigt’s effort Sunday earned the orange Most Aggressive Rider jersey for the second time in the race. Kiel Reijnen held won the green Sprint jersey, and Jamis-Hagens Berman rider Ben Jacques maintained the red King of the Mountains jersey. France’s Clement Chevrier was awarded Best Young Rider. In addition to his GC win, van Garderen also received the Colorado National Guard Best Colorado Rider award — new to this year’s competition. His BMC team finished first in the team competition with Garmin-Sharp finishing a close second.