VAIL - Perched on his bike and decked out in yellow, Tejay van Garderen stared straight ahead as the official in the start house counted down the seconds.
3 . 2 . 1 .
Van Garderen had been in this position before, and the memories of that day two years ago remained fresh. He had sprinted down the cobblestone roads of the ski village. He had pushed himself relentlessly toward the base of the climb up Vail Pass. And he had cracked when the grade steepened, a victim of his own confidence.
On Friday, the BMC rider made amends with a record performance in Stage 5 of the USA Pro Challenge. His effort in the 10-mile time trial was better than any other rider who'd gone before him this day and, for that matter, in the history of the course.
"It took me a long time to forget that," van Garderen said of his 2011 ride on the same route, where he relinquished 51 seconds and the yellow jersey to eventual champion Levi Leipheimer.
Given a second chance, he pedaled with great purpose under sun-splashed skies. If he was feeling pain from Thursday's grind up ultra-steep Bachelor Gulch, it didn't show. In fact, van Garderen appeared oblivious to everything and everyone - not an easy task given the nature of the costumed characters sprinting inches away as he approached the finish.
But he wasn't oblivious to the clock. When he crossed the line, it read 25:01.94. That was 4 seconds better than Andrew Talansky of Garmin-Sharp, who had posted his time more than an hour earlier. The previous record belonged to Leipheimer, who finished his decisive ride in 25:47.08 two years ago. This course also was part of the Red Zinger and Coors classics, which ran from 1975 to 1988, and raced by names such as Hinault, Hampsten and LeMond.
Van Garderen now tops the list. And with two races left in the seven-day stage race, he tops the overall standings by a healthy margin. His teammate Mathias Frank is the closest pursuer, 90 seconds back. Tom Danielson of Garmin-Sharp is next, trailing by 1:42. No other rider is within 2 minutes.
"There's a giant list of things that could happen," van Garderen said. "I don't want to start thinking too negatively, but this is bike racing. There could be a crash, a puncture ."
His voice then trailed off, as if he was searching for a reason that he himself might actually believe. Because in cycling, a lead of this size is nearly impossible to overcome, especially when the remaining route poses little potential danger.
"The possibilities are endless," Danielson deadpanned before offering up "poisoned water bottles" as a way to derail the man he was chasing.
If van Garderen does indeed have some doubts, that would be understandable. He's worn the yellow jersey in this event multiple times each of the past two years only to watch someone else celebrate near the steps of the state capitol when it was over.
"This race has been a little bit elusive for me," he said. "It's like I've kind of tasted it but haven't quite been able to grab it. I feel like this year things are finally going right."
The race continues Saturday with a 115.2-mile stage from Loveland to Fort Collins before concluding Sunday in Denver.