BRECKENRIDGE - While the showcase summits of Independence Pass and Hoosier Pass garnered much of the Stage 2 attention, it was a sinister stretch of side roads in this ski town that left cyclists gasping for air and precious seconds Tuesday afternoon at the USA Pro Challenge.
Swiss rider Mathias Frank handled the steep climb best, earning the stage victory by 3 seconds over Boulder resident Lachlan Morton. Peter Sagan of Slovakia took third, 14 seconds back. In a field of 121 elite cyclists, only 23 finished within a minute of Frank.
Frank credited BMC teammate Tejay van Garderen for scouting the final ascent, which featured grades of up to 15 percent, and imparting some sound advice.
"He told me, 'You just have to make it over the top. It's going downhill for the rest. The position you have on the top, you're going to have at the finish.' And he was right," Frank said.
Upon crossing the line amid enthusiastic cheers, Frank collapsed in exhaustion over his bike. A 126.1-mile route, punctuated by a lack of oxygen, had taken its toll.
"I really had to go super deep there in the last steep pitch," said Frank, who finished fourth in this year's Tour of California. "I made it over the top, and from there I could hardly pedal anymore and didn't recover until the finish. But luckily, I'm not the only one here who has that problem."
No, that problem is widespread, even among some of the world's best-conditioned athletes. Consider that reigning Tour de France champion Chris Froome, the top-ranked cyclist, finished more than 11 minutes after Frank in the stage that started hours earlier in Aspen.
"If you walk up the stairs here, it's hard work," said Morton, who seized the yellow jersey as overall race leader from Sagan. "But the thing is it's the same for everyone. So if you know how to ride at altitude and you can manage your efforts in a way that's sustainable, then you're going to be much better off."
Morton, who rides for Garmin-Sharp, admitted that form and technique "go out the window" in the final, frantic moments of such a tough climb. That's when racing boils down to a simple formula - ride as fast as you can and hope that's good enough.
"I left everything out there," Morton said. "I'll take it. It's still amazing."
In his first year as a professional rider, Morton leads Frank by 2 seconds in the overall standings. Sagan, who rides for Cannondale, and van Garderen are 11 seconds back in third and fourth, respectively. Tom Danielson (sixth) is 29 seconds behind while Garmin teammate and defending champion Christian Vande Velde (20th) trails by 46 seconds.
The seven-day stage race continues Wednesday with a ride from Breckenridge to Steamboat Springs. The event concludes Sunday in Denver.