After enduring four runner-up finishes over six stages, Garmin-Sharp got it right Sunday and finally took a stage win during the final day of the USA Pro Challenge in the team's home state of Colorado.
Golden, Colorado, native Alex Howes, who currently lives in Boulder, narrowly sprinted to the stage victory just inches ahead of fellow Boulder resident and good friend Kiel Reijnen Sunday in Denver. The result was the reverse order of the opening day in Aspen, when Reijnen (UnitedHealthcare) beat Howes in a two-up sprint.
Sunday's final stage was contested over a 126km route that started in Boulder, climbed over Lookout Mountain outside of Golden and finished with four 10km circuits in downtown Denver. Howes' Garmin team hit the front early and eventually chased down a breakaway of five riders that crested Lookout Mountain with several minutes, pulling the remnants back on the closing laps.
"The plan was to go over Lookout, which we did, and drive it all the way to the finish line," Howes said. "I didn't know if it was going to work, to be honest with you. We kind of got a talkin' to on the bus this morning, saying, 'This is how it's going to be.' And so we said, 'OK, we'll try.' And the way my teammates rode out there today, with all their hearts for me in my home state in my hometown, I couldn't lose. That's pretty much how it goes."
Garmin-Sharp started the week with Howes' second-place finish in Aspen, then grabbed the runner-up spot again with Howes during the stage 2 finish in Crested Butte. Howes wore yellow for the next day's Queen Stage, which finished at the top of Monarch Mountain. Tejay van Garderen (BMC) took the stage win and the race lead at the ski area.
Janier Acevedo took second on the stage 5 run from Woodland Park to Breckenridge, followed by Tom Danielson's runner-up effort to van Garderen during the Vail time trial. Danielson finished second overall in Colorado, but the team was unable to climb to the top step of the podium until Howes' win in Denver.
"I know Kiel was motivated, but for our team to come so close on four stages – second place, second place, second place, second place – that was hard for us to take," Howes said. "So today to see them go full gas from the bottom of Lookout all the way to Denver, like I said, there's no way I could lose. I think I would have probably disappeared into the far north of Canada or Siberia or something if I lost that."
Team general manager Jonathan Vaughters said Howes is the type of rider who can pull out a special effort when he knows the team has worked hard for him all day, and Howes proved him right in Denver.
"The thing about Alex that makes him a really special rider is that when the team does an extraordinary effort like that, and he knows he's the beneficiary of that, he comes through," Vaughters said. "He comes through in high-pressure situations when it's all on him. He knows how to do it. I just think in the end, like today it almost looked like Kiel Reijnen had the better of him, but with Alex there was just no way he was going to let his teammates down after the effort they put put."
The Garmin-Sharp squad in Colorado had to walk a tight-rope to pull of the win Sunday, riding hard enough to drop the pure sprinters but easy enough that the team didn't come apart before the finale. Vaughters praised his team's execution of the day's plan.
"We knew we had to get rid of all the really, really quick guys over Lookout," Vaughters said. "The problem is that there is a good 40-something miles of racing from the top of Lookout to here, and so the team had to operate just right in that they had to go just fast enough to get rid of everyone else, but no so fast that we started blowing up our own team. We needed the whole team to do what you guys saw: lead the whole race and hold off the groups from behind and close down the group in front. So it was a very, very difficult tactic to execute on."
Once the team successfully shed the sprinters from the yellow jersey group and then brought the escapees back into the fold, it was up to Howes to finish off the day's work. He obviously delivered, but not without overcoming a serious challenge from BMC and then Reijnen.
"Coming into the final there, BMC took over and I had my front wheel glued onto the back of Kiel's rear wheel there," Howes said. "I was not going to let that go. He's proven over and over that in a sprint like that he's going to be real quick. I got a little pinched off in the last 200 or so with guys swinging back, and I had to come over on the windy side.
"Fortunately for me and unfortunately for Kiel, Tejay was doing his best leadout for [Michael] Schär, and he kind of swung over a little quick," Howes continued. "That gave me the opportunity to get a run of speed up on Kiel. He was coming over on me a bit towards the barriers on the left, and I thought there was going to be a bad crash because there was no way I was touching the brakes. Fortunately he's a nice guy and he didn't put me all the way into the barriers. I threw my bike as hard as I could and got him by about a tire."