US Pro Cycling Challenge: Queen Stage Delivers Crashes, Climbs and a Beloved Winner

US Pro Cycling Challenge: Queen Stage Delivers Crashes, Climbs and a Beloved Winner

By J James McTigue

There are sports fans and there are cycling fans.

To watch their coveted team, the former drive to games, wear their team’s colors and tailgate in the parking lot.

To watch their beloved cycling heroes, the latter bike 10 miles up a closed mountain pass, (or camp out the night before), wear costumes, (or at times just their skivies), and also tailgate, but at 12,000 feet.

At least this was the case Wednesday on Cottonwood and Independence Passes during the US Pro Cycling Challenge.

Fans The US Pro Cycling Tour has come to Colorado, bringing the state’s cycling fanatics to the streets—literally. The group is usually relegated to watching professional cycling in the privacy of their own homes, or a nearby bar, (probably owned by a Swiss), that has Versus, the only station stateside that seems to broadcast the sport.

This week, it has all changed. The international cycling community is watching the world’s best cyclists compete throughout the Rocky Mountains via television, while American fans are camped on mountain passes, drinking mimosas and running beside the racers.

The inaugural stage race began Monday in Colorado Springs and will end Sunday in Denver. It consists of a Prologue and six stages, for a total of seven days of competition. The seven days include two individual time trials, and a total of 509 miles with 29,036 vertical feet of climbing.

The course is formidable, no doubt, but fitting for the freakishly fit and talented competitors.

The headliners, Australia’s Cadel Evans, and Luxembourg brothers Andy and Frank Schleck, placed one, two and three in this year’s Tour de France. Joined by famous veteran American riders, George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer, along with up and comers, Tom Danielson and Tejay Van Garderen, the field is inspiring to say the least.

The tour’s first stage, 99 miles with 8,020 feet of climbing, brought riders from Salida, over Monarch Pass, to an uphill finish in Mt Crested Butte. By the 25th mile, a small break away group of three riders had chalked up a 5-minute lead over the pack, or as it is called in cycling, “the peloton”.

Veteran riders like Evans and Leipheimer kept their cool and patience, confident the peloton would catch the break, which it did with 15 miles to spare. With Leipheimer, Evans, Schleck and Colombian, Sergio Luis Montoya, now in the lead group, it was anyone’s race. It wasn’t until the last corner of the last climb, that Leipheimer made his move, and sprinted to the finish for the win. Montoya finished the stage second and Schleck third.

After Tuesday, Leipheimer had an 11 second lead over the field, and the honor to wear the yellow jersey, or the “maillot jaune”. The rider with the lowest aggregate time at the end of each stage wears the yellow jersey the next day. It denotes the tour leader.

Ipeloton Wednesday’s stage, also referred to as the Queen Stage, may have been the most anticipated of the tour and most exciting to watch. The stage took the riders from Gunnison to Aspen over not one, but two, 12,000 foot passes, something that is unprecedented in the sport. There have been Tour de France stages in which riders climb more vertical feet than they will in the Tour of Colorado stages, but never to such a high altitude.

The Queen Stage had it all. An early crash, rain, relentless climbs up Cottonwood and Independence Passes, fans camped at the summits, fast downhills, and a surprise winner.

After the 131 miles had been pedaled, the 9,746 feet had been climbed, and the attacks and counterattacks had been orchestrated, there was a lead group of six riders descending down Independence Pass at speeds over 50 mph. They wove through the streets of Aspen with the young, American, Van Garderen, in the lead. Seconds before the finish, the 38-year old veteran, Hincapie, made his move to win the stage.

Everyone loves Hincapie; it’s a fact. And, here’s why. He is what the sport calls a “domestique”. He was Lead group Lance Armstrong’s guy and now he is working for Cadel Evans of Team BMC. “Working” means, he’ll get out in front of the team’s lead rider and protect him by controlling attacks, breaking the wind, orchestrating a counterattack—whatever it takes– so the leader can conserve energy. At the right moment, the leader will make his break to win. Hincapie is the set up guy.

But Wednesday was his day, and the fans, his American fans, on their soil, loved him.

At the end of Wednesday’s stage, Van Garderen led the race; Hincapie was in second, 16 seconds behind; Danielson in third, 22 seconds behind; Leipheimer in fourth, 34 seconds behind; and Christian Vande Velde in fifth, 45 seconds behind. Evans sat in sixth, 51 seconds behind.

Even though the Queen stage was clearly a make it or break it stage, the race is far from over. Thursday the riders compete in a 10-mile individual time trial up Vail Pass. Friday they race 82 miles from Avon to Steamboat and Saturday 105 miles, with 8,000 feet of climbing, from Steamboat to Breckenridge. In the final stage Sunday, the riders race from Golden to Denver.

Bunny Anything can, and will, still happen. And on Sunday, a winner will be announced. But every day, from today until Sunday, and for a few days after, thousands of US cycling fans will have a huge smile on their face and a reason to wait, for hours, on a closed mountain pass.

Then they will begin planning for next year’s tour……of Colorado.


 ed. note: As we go to press Levi Leipheimer leads at the end of Stage 3, 11 seconds ahead of Van de Velde. The top 5 riders at this point are all from the US.


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