DENVER - In what amounted to a ceremonial final stage, Tejay van Garderen soaked in his long-awaited moment Sunday afternoon. Under a bright yellow sun, he rode with ease through downtown in a bright yellow jersey, the new champion of the USA Pro Challenge.
Two years of disappointment in Colorado's rugged mountains were history. Cycling's seven-day stage race that had been so tantalizingly elusive finally belonged to him.
"Man, it felt like it was a long time coming because I've been so close," said van Garderen, who was third in 2011 and second in 2012. "It feels amazing to finally get it."
The BMC rider won it with a daring descent off Bachelor Gulch in a rainstorm at Beaver Creek and capped it with a record performance the following day in the Vail time trial. His 90-second margin of victory over teammate Mathias Frank is the largest in the three-year history of the race. Tom Danielson of Garmin-Sharp finished third, 1:42 back.
Levi Leipheimer claimed the inaugural event by 11 seconds. Christian Vande Velde stood atop the podium a year later, stunning Leipheimer and van Garderen on the final day to win by 21 seconds.
An American has prevailed each year, but an international star stole part of the spotlight in 2013. Slovakia's Peter Sagan, arguably the greatest sprinter in the world, crossed the line first Sunday to collect his fourth stage win of the week. Canadian Ryan Anderson took second and Italian Alessandro Bazzana was third.
The race began a week ago in Aspen and included finishes in Breckenridge, Steamboat Springs and Fort Collins. Enthusiastic crowds lined busy highways and back roads in the heart of ski country and the middle of nowhere. From the 12,095-foot summit of Independence Pass to the plains of Loveland, an international field of cyclists worked its way over 600 miles of a Rocky Mountain postcard.
"The crowds were incredible," van Garderen said. "Colorado is just a cycling-crazy state."
Chris Froome, who won the Tour de France last month, made the trip from England. The world's No. 1 rider never was a factor and ultimately dropped out early in Stage 7. But his inclusion was a coup for event organizers, who have attracted the Tour champion twice in three years.
USA Pro Challenge CEO Shawn Hunter said the race will return in 2014 and added that the chances were "good" of Colorado Springs hosting a stage.
"We loved it two of the first three years," Hunter said. "Obviously, we're not going to go back to every city every year, but we loved the job that was done there the first two years and want to go back."
While crowd estimates and economic impact numbers vary widely, the popularity of the event is undeniable. The atmosphere all week near the tops of climbs was akin to Friday nights in LoDo.
"It was literally a dance party in the pass," cycling fan Kara Shell said of the scene on Independence Pass. "The riders came through and we kept dancing. It was so much fun."
Van Garderen no doubt shares those sentiments. He's an alum of Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins and a resident of Aspen. For a week, he garnered plenty of the state's affection. But make no mistake, his goals rise to the sport's pre-eminent event.
"This is definitely a special race for me. But that being said, this doesn't make up for a poor July," said van Garderen, who finished 45th in Paris last month. "I'm still hungry for the Tour. I see myself as a grand tour rider and I want to come back to the Tour in the future and fight for a high (finish) and hopefully a couple years down the line even the yellow jersey.
"The cycling world after the Tour had kind of forgotten about me. I wanted to make up for that."
Van Garderen certainly did that, and now he can forget about the two that slipped away.
- First - Peter Sagan (SVK) of Cannondale Pro Cycling
- Second - Ryan Anderson (CAN) of Optum Presented by Kelly Benefit Strategies
- Third - Alessandro Bazzana (ITA) of UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team
- First - Tejay van Garderen (USA) of BMC Racing Team
- Second - Mathias Frank (SUI) of BMC Racing Team
- Third - Tom Danielson (USA) of Team Garmin-Sharp
- Smashburger Leader Jersey - Tejay van Garderen (USA) of BMC Racing Team
- Clif Bar Sprint Jersey - Peter Sagan (SVK) of Cannondale Pro Cycling
- Nissan King of the Mountains Jersey - Matt Cooke (USA) of Jamis-Hagens Berman p/b Sutter Home
- FirstBank Most Courageous Rider Jersey - Ben King (USA) of RadioShack Leopard Trek
- Colorado State University Best Young Rider Jersey - Lachlan David Morton (AUS) of Team Garmin-Sharp