Looking forward

Focusing on road ahead helps Danielson win Stage 3 of USA Pro Challenge

Tom Danielson crosses the finish line two seconds ahead of the pack Wednesday in Aspen to win Stage 3 of the USA Pro Challenge. In addition to winning the stage, Danielson also was the first rider to crest Independence Pass, doing so two minutes ahead of the rest of the riders.

A group of riders fly through the course Wednesday in the women’s criterium in Aspen before the finish of the Queen Stage of the USA Pro Challenge. The Queen Stage took the riders over both Cottonwood and Independence passes.

Christian Vande Velde rests on his bike Wednesday after taking the overall lead after stage 3 of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge.

ASPEN — Coloradan Tom Danielson badly wanted to look back to see whether other cyclists might catch him as he pushed to the finish line of Wednesday’s stage of the USA Pro Challenge bike race.

“I was like, ‘I’m not sure this is going to work,’ ” he recalled.

But he said he knew if he sneaked a peak, his wife would scold him for not listening to her advice to never look back.

Keeping his focus ahead of him paid off for Danielson, who was the first to the top of Independence Pass and then barely held off pursuers to the finish line in Aspen to win Wednesday’s stage of the week-long Centennial State stage race.

“I didn’t look back, and it actually worked. So, to you aspiring bike racers, when you go, don’t look back,” Danielson said during a post-race news conference.

Fellow Coloradan Tejay van Garderen was part of the chase group that was closing in on Danielson. But van Garderen lost his overall lead in the race to American Christian Vande Velde, who was part of the same group. The two are tied in time for the overall race and in points based on their placings in each stage. However, Vande Velde took over the overall lead based on placing 10th in Wednesday’s stage versus van Garderen’s 12th, even though the two received the same time Wednesday for their group finish.

Vande Velde said winning the overall lead Wednesday “was the last thing on my mind.”

“That was just a bonus for the team today,” said Vande Velde, who races with Danielson for the American Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda team.

Thanks largely to teammate and fellow American David Zabriskie, a top time-trialer, a breakaway group set a punishing midrace pace that helped position Danielson to speed to the top of Independence Pass more than two minutes ahead of the chase group.

“I dreamed about going over Independence Pass first alone, and today for it to come true, that’s something I’ll never forget,” said Danielson, a Boulder resident who’s originally from Connecticut but used to be a mountain bike racer in Durango.

Wednesday’s stage started in Gunnison and climbed Cottonwood and Independence passes, both of which exceed 12,000 feet in elevation. Riders today return over Independence Pass from Aspen in the opposite direction en route to Beaver Creek.

Many Aspenites were pulling for van Garderen because he married fellow cyclist Jessica Phillips, who’s from Aspen.

“He’s almost a local boy for us,” said Mike Kaplan, president and chief executive officer of the Aspen Skiing Co., who said both of Jessica’s parents have worked for his company.

Last year, van Garderen enjoyed a virtual hometown celebration when he took the race’s overall lead on the stage leading into Aspen.

This year’s Aspen celebration belonged to Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda, despite Vande Velde’s insistence that “nothing’s really changed with Tejay” due to their deadlocked time.

As Danielson reached the top of Independence Pass, the question at that point was whether he might be able to take the overall race lead. But in the end it was all he could do to win the stage, unable to descend into town alone as fast as an aerodynamic group. His gap of a few minutes had been narrowed to two seconds, and he’s now in sixth place overall, 10 seconds behind the leaders.

Still, Danielson said his real race was to be first to the summit of Independence Pass, after which he planned to deal with the remainder of the race “as it comes.”

“It was so cool to see all the fans and see people running next to me. I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that,” he said. “I wanted to give everybody a high five, but I had to keep the hands on the handlebars.”

Both he and Vande Velde said the day’s results spoke to the team nature of cycling, as was particularly exemplified by Zabriskie’s hard work sacrificing himself for the team.

“That guy’s a bad, bad man, and I’m really lucky he’s on my team, and I owe my victory to him and the team for sure,” Danielson said.

Said Vande Velde, “Cycling’s a team sport. … When it works out it’s a beautiful thing.”

Danielson rode the 130.6-mile course in five hours, two minutes and six seconds.

In the overall race, Russian Ivan Rovny is in third place, just six seconds behind. Last year’s race winner, American Levi Leipheimer, is fourth, eight seconds behind the leaders, and he was part of the chase group that finished two seconds behind Danielson on Wednesday.


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