The race began Monday in Colorado Springs and will end Sunday in Denver. By week’s end, the riders will have raced 509 miles and climbed a total of 29,036 feet.
Renowned cyclists, including the top three finishers in the Tour de France, Australia’s Cadel Evans, and Luxembourg brothers Andy and Frank Schleck, along with veteran American riders Levi Leipheimer and George Hincapie, are obvious headliners for the event. But, the young up-and-coming American riders, Tejay Van Garderen and Christian Vande Velde, continue to make a name for themselves, consistently placing in the front of the pack.
Heading into the tour’s second stage on Wednesday, Leipheimer, riding for Radio Shack, wore the yellow jersey, or “maillot juane” signifying his status as the tour leader. He held an 11 second lead over Vande Velde of Team Garmin-Cervelo and 17 seconds over Van Garderen of Team HTC-Highroad.
Despite the standings, the riders and fans knew that anything could happen on Wednesday, during what was dubbed “The Queen Stage,” because it would be the most difficult of the race. The riders started in Gunnison, climbing about 48 miles and 4400 feet to the top of Cottonwood Pass and to above 12,000 feet – the last 13 miles on a dirt road.
They then descended a tough downhill to about 8000 feet before climbing back to 12,000 feet, this time over Independence Pass. From Independence, they descended, in the rain, at speeds over 50 mph into Aspen. Over the entire stage, the riders traveled 131 miles and climb 9,746 feet, going to 12,000 feet twice, something unprecedented in the sport.
In the Tour de France, there are mountain stages in which the competitors may climb as much, and sometimes more, than the riders did in the Queen Stage, but never to such a high altitude.
In an interview on Versus, Van Garderen said, “Alpe d'Huez [a well-know climb in the Tour de France] finishes at 6000 feet. We’re starting at 8000 feet. We’re starting at 2000 feet ahead and going up from there. It’s going to be like breathing through a straw.”
As the riders approached the tunnel of fans at the top of Independence Pass, it didn’t appear Van Garderen had much to worry about. He broke from the peloton, initiating a chase from an elite group of riders that included Leipheimer, the overall leader.
As the lead group began the fast, windy descent into Aspen, the youngster, Van Garderen, wasn’t afraid to take risks and was able to out-descend Leipheimer. He led a group of six into Aspen. The 38-year old veteran, and 16-time Tour de France rider, George Hincapie of Team BMC, held on to fourth position through the final turns, conserving energy, gladly letting the youngster work out front. In the final sprint to the finish, it was Hincapie who won the stage.
Van Garderen, however, took the overall lead and the yellow jersey from Leipheimer. Heading into Stage 3, the Vail time trial, the next day Leipheimer was 45 seconds out of the lead.
The time trial is known as the “race of the truth”. Racers individually leave the start gate in one-minute intervals. There is no team to protect lead riders and no peloton to hide in. The Vail time trial added a few more variables such as high altitude and sustained climbing – translating to the riders as no breaks and no recovery.
Again the crowds came out in masses. Long-time Vail resident and amateur bike racer, Andi Malboeuf said, “Vail is home to lots of unique and exciting international sporting events, but this is the most energy and excitement from tourists and locals alike, that I’ve ever seen in my 12 years of living here.”
In an inspiring, and visibly painful trial, Leipheimer finished with the fastest time, a few tenths of a second ahead of Vande Velde and enough to win back the yellow jersey. Heading into Thursday’s race, stage 4, Leipheimer had regained the overall lead – 11 seconds ahead of Vande Velde and 17 ahead of a clearly disappointed Van Garderen.
Friday morning the racers left Avon, outside of Vail, heading 82.8 miles to Steamboat Springs. Even though the course would climb a total of 5,034 feet, the route was considered a day for the sprinters. The expectation was that the race would be fast and there would be a lot of attacks.
As predicted, a group of five riders broke from the pack, hoping to make it to the finish ahead of the peloton and to battle out the final sprint amongst themselves.
Versus commentator Phil Liggett accurately described the breakaway group as “bait dangling in front” of the peloton. Per the norm, the peloton absorbed the break and the entire field charged toward Steamboat. It would be a race to the finish.
Different teams vied for key positions in the peloton to protect their best sprinter and launch him into the final sprint. A dominant line of lime green jerseys from the Italian team Liquigas – Cannondale held fast in the front. It would be their sprinter, Elia Viviana, to win the stage.
In international racing, if the peloton comes within 1.8 kilometers of the finish in tact, all riders receive the same time for the stage. This was the case in Stage 4. The standings at the end of the day were the same as at the beginning, Leipheimer holding on to an 11 second lead.
Saturday’s race takes the racers from Steamboat Springs to Breckenridge over Rabbit Ears Pass. The mountain pass to Breckenridge could help separate the leaders, but many believe it will come down to the last miles Sunday, in the final stage from Denver to Golden for the winner to be determined.
Either way, there are still two important days of racing ahead, ample time to become a fan.