BEAVER CREEK - A steep hill named Bachelor Gulch changed the landscape of the USA Pro Challenge on Thursday afternoon. But it was the slick descent - not the lung-busting climb - that ultimately made the biggest difference.
Tejay van Garderen pulled away from Tom Danielson on the rain-soaked road, held that gap to the line and seized the yellow jersey as overall race leader with a bold showing in Stage 4. BMC teammate Mathias Frank is second, trailing by 4 seconds, and Colombian rider Janier Acevedo is third, 30 seconds back. Danielson, who rides for Garmin-Sharp, sits 40 seconds back in fourth.
Leading this event is nothing new for van Garderen, who's donned the coveted prize all three years. But he's never finished the deal in Denver.
"I'm confident, but nothing's ever given," the Aspen resident said.
In 2011, van Garderen owned a 35-second advantage after riding away from Levi Leipheimer on a wet descent off Independence Pass. The next day, at the Vail time trial, van Garderen surrendered all of that time plus 11 seconds to Leipheimer, who went on to win the inaugural event.
On Friday, van Garderen will have another chance, and once again it starts with the Vail time trial. If his Stage 4 performance was any indication, he's ready for the test.
Van Garderen was among a large group of riders who began the 3.3-mile ascent of Bachelor Gulch with sights set on a stage victory. Thanks to a concerted effort from Garmin, it didn't take long for that group to splinter on grades as steep as 18 percent. But setting a torrid pace proved costly for the Boulder-based team. First, it was defending champion Christian Vande Velde who cracked. Then, it was the man wearing the yellow jersey, Lachlan Morton.
Still, the goal was to set up Danielson and that much was accomplished. Danielson topped the summit first, shadowed closely by van Garderen and Acevedo. With the difficult work over, it came down to one thing - nerves.
"As soon as the descent started, and it was wet and tricky, Janier took one corner pretty hot and Tom Danielson looked like he was a little timid and so I thought, 'OK, let's go for it,'" van Garderen said.
The rain fell, and the gap widened. By the time the road leveled, Danielson was nowhere to be found. His two rivals were racing toward the finish, van Garderen with the comfortable cushion he craved and Acevedo with the stage win.
"I would think that Tom might be a little frustrated right now. That would be understandable," van Garderen said. "But at the end of the day, every inch of the road we're racing on. If you have a weakness in any area, it's going to show through. If you have the skill set that Janier and myself have on wet descents, you know you have to take advantage of it. It's part of the game."
Morton finished the stage in eighth and is now fifth overall. Slovakian sprinter Peter Sagan fell from third to 43rd.
The seven-day stage race concludes Sunday in Denver.