USA Pro Challenge: UHC’s Murphy dukes it out with BMC’s Phinney for Stage 7 win |

USA Pro Challenge: UHC’s Murphy dukes it out with BMC’s Phinney for Stage 7 win

DENVER, CO - AUGUST 23: BMC Racing Rohan Dennis, in yellow leader jersey, celebrates winning the 2015 USA Pro Challenge on the podium by pouring beer over the head of his teammate Brent Bookwalter, left in Denver, Colorado on August 23, 2015. Bookwalter, left, took second and Rob Britton, SSC, right, took third. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

On a hot and hazy day in downtown Denver, Australian powerhouse Rohan Dennis became the first non-American to claim America’s Race.

Not as though he realized he was making a sort of history.

“I didn’t know that was the case until two days ago,” he said shortly after learning he officially won the 2015 USA Pro Challenge. “Hopefully, I can come back next year and do it again.”

Yet, the drama in downtown Denver didn’t come from his win or the chipped tooth he suffered swinging champagne on the Capitol Hill podium. The race was determined some three days earlier, when he made a statement on the grueling Queen Stage from Aspen to Breckenridge for the first — and only — solo stage finish of the men’s race.

No, the real arch of the final stage on Aug. 23 was the no-holds-barred team dual between BMC Racing and United Healthcare. The UHC crew had been a threat from the first day of racing, regularly placing riders like Jonny Clarke and Kiel Reijnen in the top 10. Reijnen even took Stage 3 in Aspen, breaking up a BMC monopoly that began with Phinney’s wild photo finish in Stage 1 — he barely edged out Reijnen — and continued with Brent Bookwalter’s win high at Arapahoe Basin in Stage 2.

This time, it was youngster John Murphy’s turn to be a thorn in BMC’s side. In the final meters of Stage 7, he and his UHC teammates strategically held off an assault by BMC and its hometown hero, Taylor Phinney, to give him the final win of the 2015 race.

“Coming into 500 meters to go when Brent wasn’t able to follow, there was a gap between me and Taylor,” Murphy said. “I used the entire road to close it. As soon as I accelerated off the wheel, I was able to do it. It wasn’t easy, but I made it happen by a few centimeters.”

The UHC crew clearly wanted to shake up the team standings, and its top riders made their motives clear shortly after leaving the start line in Golden. UHC and BMC were neck and neck through the final four laps around Civic Center Park and Denver City Park, vying for position as they caromed past thousands of people lining Colfax and Lincoln Avenues. Rohan Dennis broke away with 1 kilometer remaining, but the young American Murphy quickly overtook him, drafting off his teammates to make a slingshot pass around Dennis.

Phinney tried for a similar maneuver in the final 100 meters, spurred along by cheers from fellow Coloradans and a wind break from Bookwalter, but Murphy spotted the gap in BMC’s line and managed to stay ahead of his Stage 1 nemesis by a tire length. Sebastian Haedo of Jamis-Hagens Berman took third to give his team its first podium of the race.

“To get John the win today was huge for the team,” said Reijnen, who ended the tour with the overall sprint jersey. “It speaks to the depth of the team. We had stage goals as well as jersey goals, so, to come away with two stage wins, along with the green jerseys, that’s very good for us.”

Despite his Stage 3 win and UHC’s synchronic Stage 7 showing, the team finished seventh in the overall team standings. BMC took first, followed by Jelly Belly-Maxxis in second — team leaders Marion Gannion and Lachlan Morton placed fourth and fifth in the overall standings — and Team Hincapie in third.

The women’s debut

Kristin Armstrong came, saw and conquered the Women’s Pro Challenge.

After three days of racing, the two-time Olympic Gold medalist with Twenty16 beat more than 70 competitors to be crowned the inaugural winner of the women’s race. But, the finish was much more than her dominating performance. It was a landmark on a multinational level: the Colorado revival of the Coors Classic philosophy — it was the first to feature male and female riders in the ‘80s — the U.S. debut of a top women’s cycling event and the international introduction of shared courses and equal prize purses for both genders.

“It’s been a real privilege,” said Boulder’s Mara Abbott, a frontrunner to place on the podium when the women’s race was first announced late in 2014. “Having to watch the men’s race without the chance to participate was real hard for me. To race in a place I’m so proud to represent, to share something I do for a living with friends and family … it was a privilege beyond description.”

Behind Armstrong were Tayler Wiles of DNA in second and Abbott, also an Olympic veteran, of Amy D. Foundation in third. All three were heavy favorites coming into the race, and they’ve proven women’s cycling belongs on the international stage after decades on the fringes.

“The women’s division was an incredible addition,” Pro Challenge CEO Shawn Hunter said at the post-race press conference, attended by Abbott and the men’s winners. “To have Mara and Kristin come in here, put up world-class performances, that was incredible.”

Oddly enough, Armstrong won just a single stage — the Aug. 21 time trial in Breckenridge — and that was by a mere 0.12 seconds over her Twenty16 teammate, Allie Dragoo, who took fifth in the overall standings.

But, Armstrong was in the top-10 day after day, and, when defending the yellow jersey from the onset, that’s all that matters. She finished Stage 2 just four seconds behind Wiles, turning the Loveland-to-Fort Collins grind into a tight race and then took ninth in the Stage 3 criterium through downtown Golden. Her total time for all three stages was 3:50:44, nearly 30 seconds faster than Wiles and 51 seconds faster than Abbott.

While the crit wasn’t enough to shake up the overall podium, it gave young sprint specialists a final chance to shine — and make a career statement with classification jerseys. Coryn Rivera of United Healthcare took first position in the crit, enough to rocket from fourth to first in the overall sprint standings to win the sprinter jersey. The 22-year-old also took second in the best young rider classification, placing 1:23 behind her teammate, 25-year-old Abigail Mickey.

The Queen of the Mountain classification was dominated by top finishers. Abbott turned in stellar performances on the Stage 1 Moonstone climb and Stage 2 Rist Canyon climb to win the overall title by a single point over Mickey, who took first at the Stage 1 QOM and second at Stage 2. Armstrong placed third in the overall QOM standings.

Like the QOM podium — or even the men’s podium — the women’s team standings belonged to heavy favorites from the start. Twenty16 demolished the field, taking first overall on the strength of daily top-10 finishes by Armstrong, Dragoo, Lauren Komanski and Lauren Hall. Only United Healthcare in second position claimed as many riders in the mix from day to day.

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