While the top three places on the penultimate USA Pro Challenge stage, finishing on the iconic Boulder ascent of Flagstaff Mountain, were comprised of the survivors of the early, day-long breakaway, the fourth place finisher, Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) wrested the leader's jersey from young rival Tejay van Garderen (BMC) on a race for the ages in Colorado.
After opening his 2012 season at Argentina's Tour de San Luis with a time trial stage win and overall victory in January, Leipheimer's steady early season was interrupted by a fibula fracture in his left leg after being struck by a car in Spain one day prior to the April 2 start of Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco.
Leipheimer returned to competition in May at the Amgen Tour of California, where he finished sixth overall, followed by a podium finish at the Tour de Suisse in June. Leipheimer experienced a lackluster Tour de France, finishing 32nd overall, but parlayed his Grand Tour fitness into a resounding victory in the final stage of the Tour of Utah eight days prior to the USA Pro Challenge.
The 38-year-old American arrived as the defending champion and has ridden a tactically astute race throughout the first five days, arriving in what has been considered the seven-day Colorado stage race's pivotal stage to Boulder's Flagstaff Mountain just eight seconds off the lead of van Garderen.
Biding his time in the peloton until the crucial 5.5km ascent to Sunrise Amphitheater on Flagstaff Mountain, Leipheimer launched one explosive attack which left his GC rivals unable to respond.
"That was the crux of the race and the most telling moment, because [Bontrager-Livestrong's Joe] Dombrowski was kind of attacking, pulling, he was really going for it," said Leipheimer. "One moment he gave it a go and Tejay didn't follow him, and he was only maybe 12 seconds down coming into the day. He looked strong and I figured if Tejay isn't jumping on his wheel right away, which would make the most sense, that means he's hurting and starting to gamble, and he's gonna key off Christian [Vande Velde] and myself. I waited to make sure he wasn't following Dombrowski, so I dropped back a bit and gave it everything I had. It was go for broke because there's not much road left in this USA Pro Challenge."
The cycling-mad city of Boulder was not a part of the inaugural USA Pro Challenge in 2011, but the overwhelming spectator turnout as this year's sixth stage passed through the heart of the Colorado city twice before finishing atop Flagstaff Mountain will be a day to remember for all of those involved.
"I'm trying to find the words to describe it," said Leipheimer. "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."
The veteran American professional, with 13 Grand Tour finishes in his palmares including multiple podium finishes at the Vuelta a Espana and Tour de France respectively, ranked the Flagstaff finale amongst anything he's ever experienced in Europe.
"That was a big day for the Tour de France," said Leipheimer. "It was just amazing coming up the last 6km of the climb. I saw all kinds of colorful characters, and you actually had to factor that into your tactics, because if you were more than five positions back you weren't going to be able to maneuver and attack and close gaps. So I made sure that I was in front, right on Tejay's wheel, and just waited for the moment.
In what's shaping up to be a repeat final podium of the 2011 edition, where Leipheimer finished ahead of Christian Vande Velde and Tejay van Garderen, the same two rivals start the final day's 15.3 kilometre time trial just nine and 21 seconds back on Leipheimer respectively.
"I knew that I had to save everything for the last two days, and I'm just extremely happy the way it played out today," said Leipheimer, whose team is much weaker than Garmin-Sharp's and BMC's, forcing the defending champion to exercise patience and tactical nous. "I mean, I gave it everything I had. I went a long ways from the finish and suffered a lot."
Pat Malach contributed to this article