After just two stages of racing, the fight for the overall win in the Tour of Utah was down to just two riders from two teams, with one wild card thrown in. That unusual situation was brought about by a mix of strong riding on Wednesday's stage 1 by defending champion Levi Leipheimer and race leader Sergio Henao, combined with conflicting priorities and disparate expectations by the other teams in the race.
Leipheimer put in a stinging attack on the final climb up North Ogden Pass, taking with him his teammate Janez Brajkovic, two riders from the Colombia Gobernacion de Antioquia team - race leader Sergio Henao and his teammate Oscar Sevilla - and an earlier attacker Jesse Anthony (Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth). When the group of five went clear, they had only 10 seconds on a strong chasing group, and at one point only a few hundred meters on an even larger peloton.
So how did five men hold off a chase group of 33 men, which included riders high up on the overall classification after the prologue, over 40km of flat roads, and end up with 2:35 over the second group at the finish?
The answer, according to Garmin-Cervélo's Tom Danielson, was that four of the strongest riders in the race were up the road, having clearly demonstrated their superiority on the 4km ascent.
Race leader Sergio Henao (Gobernacion De Antioquia) powers the winning break. Photo: Jonathan Devich
However, some teams were left scratching their heads as to why teams like Garmin-Cervélo, who had two riders in the top 10 on the general classification and three riders in the chasing group, did not contribute to the effort to close down what was a small gap in the first few kilometers after the descent from North Ogden Pass.
"I was upset there wasn't more of a chase to catch those five guys," said Chris Baldwin (Bissell), whose team did try to close the gap. "At least four of the five [ahead] were superior riders who were going to come out near the top at the end of the week anyway, but I still would have liked to see a chase. We didn't have a sprinter to contest the stage, but it seemed like there was a lack of cooperation."
Both Danielson and his teammate Christian Vande Velde said they were surprised to place so well in the prologue, but even though they were well-placed overall, neither one had major ambitions to chase the overall victory as the their main goal is the race in the team's home base of Colorado at the end of the month, the USA Pro Cycling Challenge.
Up ahead, however, RadioShack and the Gobernacion de Antioquia team were seizing control of the race, and effectively ending the hopes of the rest of the peloton.
"There were two teammates from each team - they seemed to have an agreement amongst themselves that they were going to try and end the race right there," said BMC directeur sportif Mike Sayers. "It was smart on their part [to do that] instead of fooling around. Now they have a tremendous gap and the rest of the peloton has some work to do."
After the climb, seven riders came together on the flat valley roads and at one point were a mere ten seconds from the leaders: Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad), Jeff Louder (BMC), Thomas Danielson (Garmin-Cervélo), Lucas Euser and Pat McCarty (Team Spidertech/C10), 2009 Tour of Utah winner Francisco Mancebo (Realcyclist.com) and Javier Alexis Acevedo Colle (Gobernacion De Antioquia).
Paco Mancebo (Realcyclist.com) chased hard to try to bring back the break. Photo: Jonathan Devich
"Jeff [Louder] was in the first chase and he said he was contributing, but ultimately there were guys ahead of him on GC that it was really their job to chase it back to the front five guys. Jeff said he was rolling through, which he should have been doing. I'm sure they were trying as hard as they could, but the front five guys were strong; they were just too good."
The seven riders soon began to lose ground to the five up front, and the gap went out to 45 seconds with 25km to go. "We only had Tejay [Van Garderen] in the group of seven, and the Colombian [Acevedo, whose teammates were in the breakaway] wasn't riding, and Tejay said Danielson wasn't riding," said HTC-Highroad directeur sportif Allan Peiper. "It was five against five, and the five up front were pretty strong.
"Those guys in the front were riding full gas, so the place to be [with them] was on the climb. I thought Tejay's group was going to come back, [it was] seven against five, and even if the Colombian with them wasn't riding, he had Danielson with him and one guy from each team. I thought they all had a reason to ride, but they held them at 20 seconds and then it started going out 40, 50 seconds," Peiper said.
The lack of cooperation in the chasing group continued when a group of 24 caught up with the first seven chasers, and it spelled the end of Baldwin's hopes for the overall classification as his group came in 2:35 down.
"I was upset and confused, but that's bike racing," Baldwin said. "Everyone has their own agenda, and you can't force your agenda on them. We did our best to chase with Chase [Pinkham] and Paul [Mach], they chopped off as hard as they could the whole way. I felt like we did what we could.
"I always pegged Sunday and the time trial as the most definitive days for the week, so a lot can happen," said Baldwin, "but realistically, for myself, you're looking at a top 10 result, which would be a good result for the team. That's still possible, but it sucks to see five guys gone on the first day."
Peiper agreed that two and a half minutes would be a lot for Van Garderen to claw back. "You have to stay realistic in the fact that you lose a couple of minutes, it's not easy to get it back. [Tejay] might get time back on the Colombians in a 15k time trial, but he won't get that back on Leipheimer and Brajkovic."
Tom Danielson (Garmin -Cervelo) is getting back to racing after the Tour de France. Photo: Jonathan Devich
Danielson defended his team's tactics, saying that he's not up to 100 percent following the Tour de France and that he wasn't able to go with Leipheimer on the climb. "Some people wanted us to chase, but it was in pieces on the top of the climb, and the strongest riders were the ones up the road," Danielson told Cyclingnews.
"We weren't in a position to chase, and we weren't the only ones either. I don't think people should be upset at us for not chasing. I just came off the Tour de France, I spent the past two and a half weeks really relaxed and trying to recover from the Tour. This race is my first one back since the Tour, and my number one goal is to get good condition for the USA Pro Cycling Challenge."
Don't count the Garmin-Cervélo riders out of the picture yet, however, as the Tour of Utah still has three stages where the overall situation can change dramatically: the 14.5km technical time trial at the Miller Motorsports Park, a demanding circuit race around Salt Lake City, and the mountaintop finish at the Snowbird Ski Resort.
Danielson expects to see aggressive racing on Saturday's lumpy circuit through Salt Lake City, and doesn't discount an attempt to split the field, which happened on stage 2 as well, although that day came back together for a bunch sprint. "It's going to be difficult. It's a tricky circuit, and I'm sure we'll see a similar scenario [to stage 1 in that circuit race," Danielson said. "I'm sure that whoever is in the GC lead after the time trial will be aggressive on Saturday."
Team RadioShack has so far profited from racing aggressively and from bringing a strong team to the Tour of Utah, and Leipheimer is in a position to take the race lead from Henao in the time trial. The American is just 13 seconds from the overall lead, while Brajkovic is a further five seconds back.