USA Pro Challenge: Rohan Dennis finally takes yellow jersey with solo Stage 4 win | SummitDaily.com

USA Pro Challenge: Rohan Dennis finally takes yellow jersey with solo Stage 4 win

Few things compare to crossing the finish line utterly alone after 126 miles of grueling, redline racing.

"It doesn't happen too often, to be honest," Rohan Dennis of BMC Racing said after handily taking first place in Stage 4 of the USA Pro Challenge. "Most of the time, I'll win the podium in a time trial, so to have a hilltop with a small descent was pretty special. … It was one of the special moments of my career."

After drafting off fellow BMC teammate Brent Bookwalter, the yellow jersey holder after Stage 2 and Stage 3, Dennis took advantage of the late-stage climb up Moonstone Road to pull ahead of the field, grunting past hordes of screaming race fans dressed as bananas and pandas and Uncle Sam.

"I was in the red," the Australian said of the Moonstone climb, which came after a 4,200-foot ascent of Independence Pass and 1,200-foot ascent of Hoosier Pass. "I kept looking at my power (meter), making sure I didn't go too far into it. I even started letting go a bit, then had to ride a new tempo when Robbie Squire attacked. It was a bit of a carrot, you could say."

Dennis fought through the brutal ascent — nearly 700 vertical feet in just 1.5 miles — to crest the top ahead of Bookwalter and a surprise threat: Robbie Squire of Hincapie Racing.

"The crowd was going nuts, so I decided to click into a bigger gear and just go," Dennis said of the final 200 meters, when the climb hits a 15 percent grade. "It hurts still, I won't lie, but the adrenaline of making it to the top of the climb alone is enough to push you over."

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From there, it was all downhill. He bent low over his cross-bar for a whip-fast descent of Boreas Pass Road, quickly accelerating from 15 mph to nearly 50 mph as he wove through wooded switchbacks. He visibly struggled to catch his breath in the first few seconds, forcing his heartbeat back to normal after the fierce climb.

By the time he whipped onto Highway 9, just 500 meters from the finish line in the heart of Main Street in Breckenridge, Bookwalter and Squire were more than six seconds behind him — a lifetime after pedaling for more than five hours, the longest of this year's race.

And, then, he heard the screaming again.

Thousands of fans crowded the orange barriers on Main Street to watch Dennis ride solo to the finish. He started celebrating long before the line, and with good reason: After taking second in two straight stages, it was his turn to top the podium.

"All I saw was that banner," he said.

The Queen Stage

Stage 4 was the undisputed Queen Stage of the 2015 race, thanks to one mountain pass after another, after another.

The initial climb from Aspen up Independence Pass was the steepest of this year's race. Kyle Murphy of Caja Rural-Seguros took the King of the Mountain crown, followed by Phil Gaimon with Optum Racing and Roman Kreuziger of Tinkoff-Saxo.

The second KOM climb over Hoosier Pass came after the riders had already pedaled for more than 100 miles — and Moonstone Road still loomed in the distance. BMC Racing went one-two-three for the first time, led by Michael Schar in first, Dennis in second and Bookwalter in third. Stage 1 winner Taylor Phinney joined the group on the descent into Breckenridge, and that tight, wind-breaking cluster helped propel overall leaders Dennis and Bookwalter to the head of the break group.

"Taylor had a full-on individual pursuit into the lower slopes," Bookwalter said of the team tactic. "I was joking that maybe we should have been working for him, and he said he was happy when he pulled off to see only nine or 10 guys on his tail."

The pivotal climb up Moonstone was far shorter than the first two — Independence is 19 miles from base to Summit, Hoosier is nearly 12 miles — but it was just as nasty in terms of elevation. It promises to be the wild card for tomorrow's time trial, an 8.5-mile course that includes a midstage grind up the Category 3 climb.

"It's not a pure time-trial course," Bookwalter said. "I think the guys who have proven over the week they can ride with good form (and) ride at altitude, those are the guys who will do well in the TT."

One stage, two debuts

Dennis enters the first-ever Breckenridge time trial as a legitimate contender for the Pro Challenge title. Thanks to his commanding Stage 4 win, the Australian is now the overall leader and takes the final start at the TT — a dangerous position for the man who broke the Tour de France TT record on July 4. It keeps his team at the top of the overall standings ahead of second-place Hincapie Racing, which trades places with Jelly Belly-Maxxis on the strength of Squire's finish.

"This is a pretty good team tactic, I think," Bookwalter said of letting Dennis take the lead into his strongest event. "Rohan was adamant about not wanting any pressure, so probably the best thing we could've done was tell him to ride as hard as he can in the front for someone else, and now, he's in a great position to win the race."

Dennis has remained quiet about general classification ambitions, but he is now tantalizingly close to a career landmark. A sterling performance on the unorthodox Breck course could clinch the overall win, even with two stages remaining. It would make him the first non-American to conquer the Pro Challenge, although he admits that's hardly on his mind.

"I'm not looking at those sort of records," Dennis said. "I'm taking things day by day. Tomorrow is the time trial, and that was my initial goal. It's all about protecting the lead, and, thankfully, we still have second with Brent."

Along with the 1-2 flip-flop between Dennis and Bookwalter, Stage 4 shook up the overall standings just in time for the crucial time trial. Squire rocketed from fifth to third, bumping Jonny Clarke of United Healthcare to fourth. Hugh Carthy with Caja Rural-Seguros drops to fifth, while Lachlan Morton of Jelly Belly-Maxxis sits in the same sixth position after placing in the top 10 for Stage 4.

But, the men aren't alone jockeying for position. The Breck time trial is also the first stage in the inaugural Women's Pro Challenge, with dozens of pro riders from across the world making their debut alongside the men.

"It's funny, I haven't seen it until this morning, when I rode it twice," said Robin Farina, a champion road cyclist who put off retirement for a chance to race in the Pro Challenge. "It's a toss-up about what kind of bike — do you have a time-trial bike, or do you go with clip-ons? Obviously, for people who aren't used to the altitude, you're looking ahead to the lower stages to come. … But, it's a great course and will definitely prove a worthy winner."

The leaderboard — Stage 5

Stage winners

1. Rohan Dennis (BMC)

2. Brent Bookwalter (BMC)

3. Robbie Squire (Hincapie Racing)

4. Jonny Clarke (United Healthcare)

5. Burno Pires (Tinkoff-Saxo)

Overall leaders

1. Rohan Dennis (BMC)

2. Brent Bookwalter (BMC) — 0:13 back

3. Robbie Squire (Hincapie Racing) — 0:26 back

4. Jonny Clarke (United Healthcare) — 0:27 back

5. Hugh Carthy (Caja Rural-Seguros) — 0:27 back

Overall team leaders

1. BMC Racing Team

2. Hincapie Racing — 1:14 back

3. Jelly Belly-Maxxis — 1:33 back

Overall KOM leader

Rohan Dennis (BMC)

Overall sprint leader

Rohan Dennis (BMC)

Best young rider — Stage 2

Dion Smith (Hincapie Racing)

Best Colorado rider — Stage 2

Kiel Reijnen (United Healthcare)

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