ASPEN • For two weeks, Peter Sagan had prepared for this moment. He’d boarded a plane from Europe, arriving in Colorado early to punish his legs and his lungs at high altitude in advance of the third edition of the USA Pro Challenge.
So when the Slovakian rounded the last turn of Stage 1 on Monday, he did what he does best. He stared down the final stretch, draped on both sides by hundreds of cheering, cowbell-ringing fans, and sprinted furiously toward the line. And as is often the case when Sagan is involved in a sprint finish, the rest of the field was left battling for second.
Sagan, who rides for Cannondale, slipped on the yellow jersey as overall leader minutes later. It’s the latest prize for the 23-year-old who’s quickly becoming an international star. Last month at the Tour de France, cycling’s preeminent event, Sagan took home the green jersey, given to the top sprinter.
He’s won four Tour stages in two years. Belgian rider Greg Van Avermaet of BMC finished second and Kiel Reijnen of UnitedHealthcare was third.
“The plan was to try and jump Greg and Peter because I’m just not going to beat them in a straight-up sprint,” said Reijnen, who lives in Boulder. “Lucas (Euser) took over with two corners to go, and I just tried to hang on. I was happy to be up there and finish the work that the team started. I just got beat by better guys today.”
Americans Tejay van Garderen (BMC) and Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp) finished fifth and ninth, respectively, while former Tour champion Andy Schleck (RadioShack Leopard Trek) came in 16th. All three finished in the lead pack of 17 riders and share the same time as Sagan.
Defending champion Christian Vande Velde finished the 68.2-mile stage in 24th, 5 seconds back. While organizers of the USA Pro Challenge were thrilled when England’s Chris Froome confirmed his participation in this year’s event, the reigning Tour champion didn’t live up to the hype Monday. After receiving a boisterous reception in prerace introductions, the Team Sky leader and top-ranked cyclist struggled to a 77th-place finish and trails by nearly 5 minutes.
A pack of three American riders — Craig Lewis, Matt Cooke and Ian Burnett — broke away from the peloton early in the race and rode alone for much of the day, securing most of the king of the mountain points awarded to the top climbers. But as the finish drew closer, the time gaps continued to narrow and eventually the trio was caught.
“I cannot sprint. It’s just something that will not happen no matter how hard I try,” Cooke said. “So I have to go for the KOM jersey and that’s what I did.”
Climbing is something that seemingly will not happen for Sagan no matter how hard he tries. So when asked if he had hopes of wearing the yellow jersey after Sunday’s finale in Denver, Sagan smiled and shook his head no.
“We will see day by day, but I don’t think I can be on the front when we come into the big climbs,” he said. Those climbs start Tuesday with a 126.1-mile stage from Aspen to Breckenridge that involves more than 12,000 feet of elevation gain.