There was very little surprise when four local riders made into the day's breakaway during Saturday's stage from Golden to Boulder at the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado. The race featured 22 riders from Colorado, 18 of whom currently or previously lived in the cycling-centric college town just west of Denver
"They called all the Boulder guys to the start line this morning," said RadioShack-Nissan's Jens Voigt, one of the 14 riders in the breakaway that formed in the opening kilometers outside of Golden. "There was probably half the peloton that was from Boulder. So it was actually quite easy to be in a break with somebody from Boulder."
Eventual stage winner Rory Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare) moved to the town in 2007. Bissell Pro Cycling's Chris Baldwin has been a fixture in Boulder throughout his long career. Liquigas Cannondale's Timmy Duggan, the reigning US national road champion, is from there and now lives in nearby Nederland, and Garmin-Sharp's Alex Howes is a Golden boy. All four riders made it into the lead group that animated the penultimate stage.
"It's funny," Sutherland said. "We were talking about it at dinner [Friday] night when I walked past the Bissell table and saw Chris Baldwin and I saw Timmy Duggan, and we chatted. I said, 'If you go up the road, you better make sure I'm there, because I'm coming.'"
It seems most of the Boulder-based riders were watching and waiting for the day's big move. Voigt said he thought all of the teams had the same morning meeting before the stage, because nearly every rider in the race was trying to maker it into the move. But Duggan said the local riders had a big advantage in knowing when to go.
"We know this exact road, and we knew how the race would probably play out," Duggan said. "We were all kind of looking at each other and even talking to each other before like, 'Alright, man, we're all watching you. When you go it's go time.' And that's how it went."
As the break approached the day's second ascent, the category 2 climb of Lee Hill Road, the RadioShack-Nissan duo of Voigt and George Bennett launched an attack. The climb cracked the break, and on the descent Bennett and Colorado were joined by Baldwin, Duggan, Oyola, Voigt, Sutherland, Aru, Tvetcov and Bertogliati. Howes missed the move and eventually faded back into the field, leaving three riders to carry the hometown flag into Boulder. The trio of veteran riders knew what needed to be done to make their work pay off.
"Me and Baldwin and Rory, we knew how this race was going to go," Duggan said. "And we knew that if we could just keep this group together as long as possible, that's just going to benefit everybody. So the three of us weren't playing any games. And a lot of guys were jacking around and attacking at stupid times. Luckily the three of us were pretty level headed and we kept the impetus of the group going."
Baldwin, who was the second-highest placed GC rider in the break at 2:12 off leader Tejay van Garderen (BMC), poured everything he had into keeping the move away.
"I felt like we were all going to get caught because everyday every breakaway people didn't cooperate," he said. "So I did more work than I should have. My thought being that I might be able to turn it into a GC move. I knew I was one of the higher guys on GC, if not the highest, so I felt I had an obligation to commit to it, and I felt I paid for that, but I still had a blast."
In the end, it was Sutherland's strength and well-heeled knowledge of the race that paid off with the stage win, his second this month after winning the opening day at the Tour of Utah.
"I don't know how many times I've done this mountain," he said. "But it's getting up near 100 I would imagine. It's such a beautiful mountain, and I think it makes a huge difference, obviously, in knowing the area and the climb, about where to go harder and where to take it easier."
Although the local knowledge was obviously a difference-maker for the Colorado-based riders, the support from their many fans along the route provided the inspiration to push their efforts beyond their normal limits. Duggan said the support on the climbs and all long the course was surreal. He remained with the leaders in the fracturing break group as they went up Flagstaff until Leipheimer, who finished fourth on the stage and took the overall lead, flew past on the upper reaches of the steep slope
"It was awesome," he said. "The long climb up to Nederland through Boulder Canyon was kind of painful. There was tailwind and we were going pretty good. But once I went through my hometown of Nederland through this tunnel of people – I had a huge fan club right there at the roundabout – from there on I didn't really feel my legs for the rest of the day. It was like an infusion of energy."
Baldwin, who hung on for 15th place, 1:18 behind Sutherland, said the support on the course and racing in his backyard made the day really special. "There just aren't words for it. I've never done anything remotely like that in my life," he said. "As agonizing as it was, I felt like the race was five minutes long. It went so quick. It must have been some kind of world record for crowds. On every pivotal point in the race, everywhere, it felt like the 100 miles were lined with people."
And it wasn't just the local riders who experienced the thrill of riding the front during what may have been the biggest day ever in US racing. Both Voigt and Leipheimer, veterans of multiple Grand Tour campaigns, had nothing but praise and awe for the Colorado race fans along the route Saturday.
"When they told me [Friday] they expected 20 to 30,000 people on Flagstaff, I went, 'Yeah, I'll believe it when I see it,'" Voigt said. "But hey, I'm a believer now. I saw it. I saw it with my own eyes."
Leipheimer seconded Voight's belief. "I'm trying to find the words to describe it," Leipheimer said. "You know last year the stage from Golden to Denver was phenomenal, and people were starting to argue about which is the biggest day in American cycling. Is it that day or a couple of the days at Tour of California or before my time in the Coors Classic. But I don't think there's any argument after today. I mean that was incredible."
Meanwhile, stage winner Sutherland was left nearly speechless by the crowds and the support. "I started getting goose bumps and cold shivers," he said. "And it was kind of weird, and you really can't explain the emotion when you're going through your hometown."