Optum Pro Cycling's Carter Jones has been knocking on the door of big-time cycling for several years, but this week at the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado he is determined to kick that door down. After four stages, the 25-year-old from Boulder is sitting seventh overall, just 49 seconds off the time of race leader and defending champion Tejay van Garderen of BMC Racing.
Jones started the seven-day UCI 2.HC race with an improbable fourth-place finish after sneaking off the front of the hard-charging field in the closing kilometers of the finish in Aspen, leading in a group that also included Trek Factory Racing's Matthew Busche and Novo Nordisk's Javier Mejias. BMC's Michael Schär led the field in eight seconds later.
The Optum team leader suffered terribly during the rain-soaked stage into Crested Butte, finishing 17th on the day and giving up 35 seconds to stage winner Robin Carpenter (Hincapie Sportswear). But Jones bounced back during Wednesday's Queen Stage, sticking with some of the best climbers in the world and finishing sixth on Monarch Mountain, climbing to seventh overall.
"I was very excited about [Wednesday], showing that I could go over the top of Monarch the first time with the ProTour guys, and then being there actually animating the race rather than hanging on coming up to the finish," he said before the start of stage 4 Thursday in Colorado Springs. "I probably suffered for that results-wise, but it's still a confidence booster for me, and I had to try."
Like he did with 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) on Mt. Diablo at the Tour of California in May, Jones did not hesitate on Wednesday's final climb to attack a select group that included van Garderen, fifth at this year's Tour de France, and Tour mountains classification winner Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo).
"Bike racing is bike racing," Jones said of his bold moves. "It doesn't matter who you're racing against. Everyone is human. There's no reason just to sit around and be intimidated. You're not going to get any results. I need to get results, and so I need to put myself out there."
Jones has been putting himself out there all season long. He won the UCI 2.2 Tour of the Gila in May, then followed it up with an 11th-place finish in California. He climbed his way to seventh overall at the UCI 2.1 Tour of Utah at the start of this month, and he hopes to finish in the top five this week in Colorado.
"I think that Carter has his mind set on trying to improve off of last year," said Optum director Jonas Carney. "I think he was eighth at Utah last year and seventh at Utah this year, and 11th at California this year and 11th in Colorado last year, so he's got all these great placings, but he really wants to crack that top five."
Jones missed cracking the top 10 in Colorado last year by just one second, and he was a handful of seconds away from eighth, so he is very aware that every second counts at the top of the general classification.
"I was quite disappointed in the Crested Butte day," Jones said. "I had a really, really rough day. I just froze and lost a spare chunk of time. … I'm hoping for definitely anything top 10 for sure. I really wanted to be top five, but at the moment it's going to be tough. The Vail TT, everyone is a strong time trialist for that course. It will be interesting because the Breckenridge course [during Friday's stage 5] is kind of the wild card."
The best chance for Jones to crack the top five now will likely come during Saturday's Vail time trial, a 16.1km route that starts in town and finishes with a climb to the top of Vail Pass. The uphill course, which reaches above 2,900 meters, could suit Jones well.
"Carter time trials well at altitude, and he time trials well when there's climbing, like at the Tour of the Gila this year where he took the yellow jersey in the time trial," Carney said. "So we're hoping he has a good day in the time trial. Other than that there's not a lot of opportunities to move up. [Thursday] and Sunday there isn't enough climbing. Maybe [Friday] there is enough climbing to do a little damage."
Jones is looking forward to the opportunity in Vail as much as anyone can look forward to what will likely be another very painful day on the bike.
"It's one of the hardest time trials I've ever done," he said. "It's just so challenging with the climbs at the second half and you're gaining altitude. There's a lot more to it than just being a time trial effort. But that said, it does suit me very well for a time trial. So it's something I am looking forward to, per se."
A consistent season and results like his first overall win in a UCI race at the Gila have garnered attention and interest from WorldTour teams, Jones said, but he knows he's got to deliver one big blow to finally open the door to cycling's top division.
"Quite frankly, I've been very consistent, but I think I need to make a big splash, something flashy, a big result," Jones said. "[Teams] don't want to sign a guy who's finishing seventh or eighth. That's kind of quiet. They want to sign a guy who's winning stages or really pushing the GC. So that's the goal."