Colorado v. The Golden State Gladiator
“How Levi Leipheimer made year one of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge His Own”
Colorado has seen its fair share of cycling, but there was no denying the level of electricity in the air when the first rider rolled out of the start house for the 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge. The Centennial State is the spiritual home of pro cycling in America and to see it resurrected with a top shelf stage race meant that all eyes of the sport would be trained on every development that took place out on the road. No matter how things shook out, Team RadioShack’s Levi Leipheimer knew that he wanted to figure significantly in how the story of the inaugural event was written.
Leipheimer had exited with top honors from the Tour of Utah despite a tough battle from the Colombian Gobernacion de Antioquia team. But now he’d be taking on that very same squad along with riders from EPM-UNE, another Colombian outfit that had to be relishing the opportunity to race with the biggest names in the cycling world, up at altitudes where they clearly had an advantage.
Selecting the Garden of the Gods park as the locale for the event’s kick off was not lost on spectators or the riders. The 8.3km/5.1m prologue would be tackled by some of the biggest names on two wheels – including the reigning Tour de France champion himself, Cadel Evans. With only this and six other stages to contest, none of the riders could afford to cede too much time. Patrick Gretsch, the young German rider with HTC-Highroad, occupied the pole position with a time of 0:08:28 for most of the day, and no one seemed able to dislodge him. Levi was one of the final riders to roll down the start ramp, knowing full well that most of the riders stacked up behind Gretsch were within seconds of one another. He came across the finish line in Colorado Springs just eight seconds outside of the best time. Gretsch would get the first USA Pro Cycling Challenge Quizno’s yellow leader’s jersey, but Levi’s time kept him safely in the top 10 in seventh place.
It wasn’t until the following day during the stage from Salida to Crested Butte, however, where Leipheimer truly made it clear that he had the form and the intention to take control of the overall. Now operating above 8000ft/2700m, Leipheimer was there when a select group caught the final fragments of the day’s breakaway. Needing to make up for time he lost against the clock the day before, Andy Schleck (Leopard Trek) launched an attack, but Leipheimer’s teammate Ivan Rovny brought the California rider to within striking distance of the Luxembourger and that’s all he needed. With less than a kilometer remaining Levi launched a searing uphill sprint that essentially no one could answer. He crossed the line in first place, picked up a 10 second bonus and seized the Quizno’s yellow jersey. On the following day, however, the tables would be turned on the race’s new leader.
As stunning as Aspen is, the road the peloton took to get there during stage 2 was less than ideal. Intermittent drizzle, loose gravel, and periodic bouts of wind played havoc with the riders. Add to that the two tough climbs of Cottonwood and Independence Pass and the leaders would have more to be concerned about than on any other point in the race, before or after. On the descent en route to the city, the rain chilled Leipheimer to the bone and try as he might, he couldn’t hang on to the wheels of the lead group and found himself losing valuable time to HTC-Highroad’s Tejay van Garderen and eventual stage winner George Hincapie. But van Garderen, basking in the glow of the overall leader’s jersey, perhaps made the mistake of telling the media that Levi lost his nerve on the tight, downhill turns leading to the finish. That was all the kindling that Leipheimer needed going into the next day’s time trail in Vail.
Going up nearly another 1,800 feet from Vail’s elevation of 8,022 ft/2,445 m, the 16.1km climb up to Vail Pass was perhaps the most crucial day of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. Lose there, and the race might permanently slip from your fingers. Knowing this, Leipheimer summoned all the bile in his system to ensure that he struck back effectively at the younger rider in yellow. Coming towards the finish, Leipheimer hugged the inside rail as much as possible ensuring that he took the shortest line to the top. That tactic might have made all the difference considering that his winning time eclipsed a fantastic effort from Christian Vande Velde by just five tenths of a second. Back in yellow with his pride restored, the race was essentially Leipheimer’s from that point forward.
The remaining stages were the providence of the sprinters. Elia Viviani (Liquigas-Cannondale) brought the green-clad Italian squad not one but two victories when he sprinted across the line first in Steamboat Springs, and again in Breckenridge. On both occasions Leipheimer’s RadioShack squad remained vigilant to any potential threats. And on the last day, it was Viviani’s teammate Daniel Oss who provided the winning fireworks as the race came to a close with six exciting circuits in downtown Denver. Leipheimer who saw Liquigas win from six places back knew that the overall was his and that he’d be able to take the first USA Pro Cycling Challenge title back home to Santa Rosa. Having lost out on his fourth Amgen Tour of California earlier in the year, the RadioShack rider knew that what was an already difficult task was an unavoidable obstacle in order to retain his status as America’s top pro cyclist. For Levi, it was mission accomplished.