Published: August 23, 2014
BRECKENRIDGE - Tejay van Garderen isn't hard to spot these days. He's the one wearing the bright yellow jersey and the wide smile, the one stealing a pair of kisses in front of the podium after each stage.
The Aspen resident has made it look easy through five days of the USA Pro Challenge.
And now only two days separate him from a potential second straight title in the fourth edition of the professional cycling race.
"There's a little bit of nerves, but I'm confident," van Garderen said.
He has every reason to be. The BMC rider holds a 20-second advantage over his closest pursuer and has withstood every challenge he's faced since starting this race in his hometown - from the weather delay outside Crested Butte in Stage 2 to the numerous attacks on Monarch Pass a day later.
Stage 5 on Friday presented another difficult test. Mother Nature made sure of that.
Wind, rain, hail and cold temperatures greeted riders almost from the outset in Woodland Park and didn't relent until it was too late to make much difference.
"It was absolutely miserable," said Ben King, who rides for Garmin-Sharp. "I don't know what the temperature was, but it was freezing. Everybody was shivering on the bike. People kept dropping back for more and more clothes. It was just kind of a war of attrition."
King was one of the first four riders to top 11,539-foot Hoosier Pass, the highest point in this week's race.
Once that group made it to Breckenridge, it became a battle of wills on the ruthless roads inside the ski town.
Laurent Didier made his move near the top of the final climb, a spot he thought he knew well after watching last year on TV when Mathias Frank attacked on the same finishing stretch.
Didier, who rides for Trek Factory Racing, dropped Janier Acevedo and Rob Britton on the steep grades and then bolted past King.
Following a slick descent on Boreas Pass Road, Didier was the first to emerge on Main Street, followed closely by Acevedo and Britton. After working so hard to get up front, Didier wasn't going to be denied.
"I just went with all I had until the line, and it worked out," the native of Luxembourg said.
Garmin's Acevedo settled for second while Britton, who rides for SmartStop, took third. King finished fourth and earned the jersey given to the day's most aggressive rider.
"At one point, I really thought I was going to win, and it's not very often that I have that feeling in a race," King said. "I looked back and it was just him (Didier) on the front chasing, chasing, chasing. He came over the top of me with a big acceleration, gapped the other two guys, and I wasn't even able to jump on the wheel."
More than 90 seconds after the sprint finish, van Garderen was among a group of five riders to cross the line. Missing from that group were Garmin's Tom Danielson, who lost 5 more seconds to fall 39 seconds behind the overall lead, and BMC's Ben Hermans, whose struggles on Hoosier Pass dropped him from third overall to ninth following the 104-mile stage.
Heading into Saturday's individual time trial, Rafal Majka of Tinkoff-Saxo sits closest to van Garderen at 20 seconds back. Serghei Tvetcov of Jelly Belly trails by 37 seconds.
"As long as I just stay calm, I think I should be fine," van Garderen said. "Even if I lose the stage, all I need to do is really manage the gap."
The Pro Challenge concludes Sunday with a stage from Boulder to Denver.