VAIL — Good night, everyone.
Tejay van Garderen said that to the USA Pro Challenge field during Saturday’s Stage 6, the Vail Time Trial.
Sure, before the competition, he said to NBC Sports Network that he hoped to win the stage and he certainly wasn’t thinking about padding his lead.
No sale there, Tejay.
Make no mistake about it — this was closing time.
He won Saturday’s stage by 52 seconds over Tom Danielson. Van Garderen obliterated his own course record of 25 minutes, 2 seconds with a 24:26.60. He increased his general classification, a fancy term for the Challenge’s overall lead, from 20 seconds to 1 minute, 31 seconds, going into today’s final stage from Boulder to Denver. Today’s cruise will be a coronation.
During the last four years of the USA Pro Challenge, and, particularly the Vail Time Trial in the three years it’s been run (2011, 2013 and 2014), Van Garderen has developed one of the skills of universal greatness, the killer instinct.
Van Garderen blew the Pro Challenge during this stage in 2011. He led race by 34 seconds coming in, and left 17 behind that year. Last year, he won the Vail Time Trial by 4 seconds, but, more importantly, increased his G.C. lead from 4 seconds to 1:30.
Saturday, he both blitzed the field, including a valiant charge by Danielson, and closed up shop on the race.
Making this all the more remarkable was that the conditions might not have been ripe for a command performance. Yes, it was an uphill stage and a trial, negating the possibility of carnage in downhill pileup, but van Garderen drew the worst lot when it came to the weather.
Cool is nice — one doesn’t want to do Vail Pass when it’s 75-80 degrees and clear — but cold is different. And the wet conditions made it tricky for Van Garderen to pick up time on the flatter sections of the course, — the village and the Frontage Road to the 6-mile mark, where the uphill begins in earnest.
Note that Australian Michael Rogers, who was the leader at the top for a good portion of the race and finished fifth went out under dry conditions. Van Garderen beat Rogers by 49 seconds from the start to the 6-mile checkpoint. Rogers averaged 23 mph during this stretch, while van Garderen was smoking at 29 mph.
There’s also the course strategy — take it slow for the first six miles, saving energy for the serious uphill or blasting the first six and trying to hang on for dear life during the climb?
Van Garderen’s team reported to NBCSN that its racer would take it slow for the first 8 miles and then turn on the jets for the final 2 miles.
Van Garderen discarded all three theories. The after-burners were on from the start and his lead kept growing as he ascended.
This is akin to how Ted Ligety tends to take apart the field at Birds of Prey in December in the giant slalom. He lays down a first run, giving himself a lead going into the second run. Then, instead of sitting on the lead, Ligety breathtakingly increases his lead in the second run.
As van Garderen crossed the finish line, he pumped his fist even before looking up at the clock. He knew he had it. It’s the mark of a champion and soon-to-be a two-time winner of the USA Pro Challenge.
On other news and notes from Vail Time Trial Saturday:
• That this is Jens Voigt’s finale from professional cycling is well-documented, but … here are some cool facts. The German is turning 43 next month. (He is riding against people half his age. Van Garderen is all of 26.) He was born in Grevesmuhlen, East Germany. That one just gets me — a guy born in a country that dissolved at the end of the Cold War is still racing.
Voigt got a very warm reception at the start from the local crowd, and finished 18th with a 27:15.
• Meet Keegan Swirbul. He’s an Aspen kid and all of 18, thus illustrating the point about Voight. Back to Swirbull, he’s competing in the USA Pro Challenge, and finished 95th on Saturday. He’s 67th in the G.C., going into today. Think about what you were doing during your summer when you were 18. Having a summer job was kind of cool. Wow.
• In 2011, the Vail Time Trial was Stage 3; and last year Stage 5. This was the first time it was the penultimate phase of the USA Pro Challenge. The finale of the race will always have to be in Denver and environs because that’s where the people are. But the Vail Time Trial should stay as Stage 6. It will be interesting to see if race organizers agree.
• TV watch: NBC Sports Network did the obligatory shots of the mountains, the town of Vail, the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater and the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. The 10th Mountain Division and the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships also got a mention. Remember, people, the reason Vail and Beaver Creek have hosted stages in the Challenge is to get on TV. It’s somewhat-free advertising for our part of the country. It would have been nice if it were a bluebird day, but you can’t have everything.
Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934, firstname.lastname@example.org and @cfreud.