STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Jens Voigt, less than a month shy of his 42nd birthday, only smirked as Lachlan Morton dismissed him with one short phrase.
Morton emerged as one of the winners of Stage 3 of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, which finished on Wednesday afternoon in downtown Steamboat Springs.
The 21-year-old rider surged to grab the yellow jersey during Stage 2, and he and his Garmin-Sharp teammates led a successful defense of the jersey in Stage 3.
Discussing how his team tracked down Voigt late in the race, Morton described those who had broken away as not a “major threat.”
Fair enough. Voigt might never have threatened to take the yellow jersey from Morton, but his daylong breakaway and solo go over Rabbit Ears Pass defined Steamboat’s stage and did plenty to threaten the sprint finish everyone was expecting.
The peloton caught Voigt with just three kilometers remaining, setting up a thrill of a different kind as the thousands packed into downtown Steamboat Springs saw Peter Sagan, one of the world’s best sprinters, charge to the stage win.
“I’m very happy. I say, ‘Thank you’ to my teammates. They did very good work,” the Slovakian sprinter said.
Sagan came in fresh off a spectacular showing in the Tour de France where he won the green sprint points jersey. He backed that up already in the Pro Challenge, winning in Aspen for the first stage, then showed again Wednesday why he’s one of the best.
The city — seemingly all of it and them some gathered for the final mile along the side of the road to bear witness — erupted as he broke around his Cannondale teammates, split a pair of competitors and secured Wednesday’s win.
“I heard it was too many climbs here from teammates,” he said when asked whether he’d expected before the event to rack up stage wins. “It’s not really hard, though. It’s only four or five percent (grades on the roads) and that’s OK for me. I feel good, and I can do well in this one.”
‘I gave it a go’
Sagan’s charge — which took place despite a late-race crash that sent nearly a dozen riders to the pavement — was made possible only once the peloton reeled in Voigt, who put on a show that won’t be soon forgotten in Steamboat Springs.
Everyone expected the sprint finish that played out, but few expected it to take so long for that fate to come into focus. Voigt was one of five riders who broke away early, simple strategy for many of the teams and riders involved. A group out front helps tame aggressiveness in the peloton, bringing about the sprint that teams such as Cannondale wanted and the stability Garmin-Sharp sought.
That small pack was nearly five minutes ahead at one point, but as the race passed Kremmling and approached Rabbit Ears Pass, some members began to fall back, allowing their teammates in the peloton to catch up.
Rather than slow down, Voigt sped up, breaking out on his own.
“I had it in mind this morning. I told the boys, ‘I feel up to it,’” he said. “I’m not going to win the (general classification). There was no reason for me to hold back. Sometimes, it’s best if no one expects you to go, then you go.”
He was met with wild cheers as he came up the first slopes of the pass, not thought steep enough to be a major factor in the stage. He flew through the King of the Mountain checkpoint on the east side of Rabbit Ears and rode hard over the top of the pass as the last of his breakout-mates were swallowed up.
Rocketing down the west side, above Steamboat, he came off his seat, hiding behind his handle bars and pulling tight against his bike’s frame, desperate to conserve every ounce of efficiency.
It wasn’t enough, not quite.
“I realize with five or six kilometers to go, when (the gap) went underneath a minute, and I did a quick calculation,” he said. “I saw it coming a little bit, but I was still disappointed.”
The crowd downtown was updated constantly with the public address announcer screaming as the gap shrank, then finally as Voigt’s big plan went bust, just on the edge of town.
Disappointing for him, it’s another great year of theater for cycling fans in Steamboat Springs.
“It didn’t work,” he said, “but at least I gave it a go.”