Fort Collins — Peter Sagan came to the USA Pro Challenge to prepare for upcoming races. He will leave Colorado as the proud, and a little bit surprised, owner of at least three stage victories.
At Saturday’s Stage 6, Sagan powered past several rivals just before the finish line, swinging to his left then charging across the line. The 23-year-old Slovakian rider waved a salute to the sky with his right hand then raised both arms in celebration.
He raced across the finish of the 115-mile stage in 4 hours, 1 minute, 33 seconds, besting Luka Mezgec and Greg Van Avermaet. Sagan has won 17 stages this season, including one in the Tour de France.
“Now I’ve won three stages and I’m very happy and surprised, yes,” said Sagan, a three-time Slovakia National Road Race Champion.
Tejay van Garderen’s bid to finally claim the overall title appears all but in his trophy case after a pressed but safe ride from Loveland to Fort Collins, by way of Windsor, Devil’s Gulch and Estes Park.
Van Garderen, a runner up last year by 21 seconds, and third in 2011 by just 17 seconds, holds a lead of 1:30 in front of BMC teammate Mathias Frank and 1:42 in front of Garmin-Sharp’s Tom Danielson, of Boulder.
“Being able to race on the roads I used to train on in high school, that was a dream,” said van Garderen, who resides in Boulder but went to Fort Collins’ Rocky Mountain High School. “I was hearing my name out there so many times. It was unbelievable. This is definitely a special race for me.”
Indeed, the fans turned out, perhaps specifically to see van Garderen ride. Some lined the finishing stretch in Fort Collins as early as 10 a.m. — it was nearly 4 p.m. when the riders arrived — while event organizers busily arranged barricades, tents and signs to decorate an already festive area.
As for today’s final stage, Sagan said the shorter 75-mile ride might be conducive to trying for his fourth victory after his team was taxed in Stage 6.
Attempts to break away from the field started early, and after 50 kilometers, a 15-rider breakaway established itself and stretched as much as 2:30 ahead of the main field. The breakaway held its lead until fewer than 10 miles remained. It appeared the lead was slipping across the final 25-30 miles, but more aggressive riding from numerous competitors drove up the drama of the finish.
After the climb midway through the stage up Devil’s Gulch, rated as Category 2, Cannondale, Sagan’s Canada-based team, did the yeoman’s work at the front of the peloton, keeping the pace high to reel in the breakaway.
“On the front, it was 15 riders, too much,” said Sagan. He will continue to wear the green jersey as the race’s best sprinter. “Every one rider from my team did the maximum.”
He dedicated his victory to a teammate who fell in a crash earlier in the race and remains hospitalized.
Although not too troubled by the time gap because no one in the break threatened his overall lead, Van Garderen, too, mentioned the palpable intensity as teams attacked and jockeyed to make the most of the second-to-last stage.
“The attacks were just going non-stop,” van Garderen said. “For a lot of teams, this was kind of the last chance to try something. There was a good chance for the breakaway to get away and stay away. ... A lot of people were under pressure, and no one was willing to let any moves go. That just made for a hard, fast race.”
The terrain of the stage also pushed the riders as much as the competition. Van Garderen complimented the race for its more selective choice of climbs, which produced harder rides.
What’s next: The race concludes today with the 72.9-mile Denver Circuit race. The flat stage will favor the sprinters and stats and finishes on Broadway. The final stage gets rollling with a 1 p.m. start.
Race coverage is available on NBC and NBC Sports Network, and streaming online at www.usaprocyclingchallenge.com