BMC Racing put a virtual clamp on the general classification Tuesday at the USA Pro Challenge when Brent Bookwalter and Rohan Dennis crossed the line first and second, respectively, to claim the top two spots overall. Bookwalter now leads his younger teammate by six seconds.
The situation, while enviable, also creates a dilemma for the team as it heads into the next few days, the stage 3 run from Copper Mountain to Aspen, the stage 4 route from Aspen to Breckenridge and the stage 5 individual time trial in Breckenridge.
Wednesday's 163km stage takes riders over Freemont Pass and then Independence Pass at 3,686 metres above sea level. The altitude climbing continues on Thursday, when stage 4 goes starts with a trek back over Independence Pass and then finishes with Fairplay [3,033m], Alma [3,158m], Hoosier Pass [3,518m] and then Moonstone Road [3,074m].
Friday's 14km time trial starts in Breckenridge at 2,926 metres before ascending up and over the steep pitch of Moonstone Road and then back into town.
Bookwalter, who finished third on the opening stage, and Dennis, who broke away late on day one and almost held his advantage to the line, have shown themselves to be the strongest riders at the race so far, but just who the team will support for the overall is still up in the air.
Dennis looked like the consummate domestique during the final climb of Tuesday's stage, setting a pace that shredded the bunch before Bookwalter launched his stage-winning attack.
"I just set my own tempo and I sat on my own power," Dennis said. "I was just chasing whoever attacked, and Nathan Brown [Cannondale-Garmin] was out front. I thought when he was gone people would start attacking full gas, but they just never did."
Bookwalter didn't have a direct answer when asked what the team's strategy was and who BMC was supporting for the overall.
"I think we'll have to look at the entire GC tonight," Bookwalter said in the post-race press conference. "I think Rohan is obviously the favourite for the time trial, but we have two really hard stages between now and then, and two of them that have proved to be pretty unbreakable also in the past.
"So I'll enjoy today, enjoy the first two days and then we'll create a plan for the rest of the race," he said.
Dennis, who was clearly thrilled to see Bookwalter win the stage, was equally opaque when asked who the team will support or whether it will protect both riders' GC chances.
"Obviously Brent is showing that he's strong, and I'm going to keep going like I did the last two days," Dennis said. "I think we don't want to throw both our bullets down the drain.
"We're going to do the same thing we've done for the last two days," he said. "I'll probably put my hand up to work for him later on in the stage and do some pulls or whatever I have to do, sort of like today. If we can hold one-two we will, but if either one of us wins it's good."
Although there are still two days in the mountains before the time trial, the overall battle could very well come down to the race of truth, and Dennis said he believes the course favours himself.
"I'd say myself, only because probably I do train a lot on the time trial bike and it feels just as comfortable as the road bike," said Dennis, who won the opening time trial at the Tour de France and wore yellow there for a day.
"My power output is actually more on the time trial bike, and it's a specialty of mine," he said. "Look, Brent has been training and practicing on it a lot the past week, and I think he's pretty motivated, as you saw today. For sure it's going to be decisive.
"Today guys like [Davide] Formolo are only 30 seconds back. If we can take time out of him that's good, if we can take time out of him in the time trial, that's even better."
With two tough days coming up, however, Bookwalter was less certain that the race would be decided in the time trial.
"Yeah, it's possible," he said. "But tomorrow we finish on Independence Pass and the descent down to Aspen. Then the next day we start with Independence Pass and have some really hard climbs toward the end. Hoosier Pass is super high altitude, and last year we had that really nasty weather there. So it's by no means even close to being over.
"But I think we're in a good position," Bookwalter said. "The team showed over the last two days that we're really strong. And I was pleased, obviously, with how I rode today as well. So I think we couldn't ask for more up to this point, but we can't take that for granted. And we can't be overly confident."
As the press conference was winding down, Dennis playfully jabbed Bookwalter in the ribs and reminded him that one of his best results to date was second overall at the 2013 Tour of Alberta, a race Dennis won when he was with Garmin-Sharp.
"Rohan reminded me I was second at Tour of Alberta [in 2013]," Bookwalter said. "Which is a pretty good result considering he won."