The UnitedHealthcare team came to the USA Pro Challenge with a strong-willed determination to put their stamp on the race, and in a lengthy morning meeting they drew up a plan to put Kiel Reijnen in the race lead. It was a risky scheme, considering the WorldTour riders they were up against, but the domestic Pro Continental squad scored bigger than they ever could have imagined when Reijnen succeeded in winning the stage in Aspen, and taking the overall lead, the points classification as well as the new Best Colorado Rider jersey.
Reijnen, however, had to defeat one of his best friends and constant training partners to do it. The Boulder resident broke free in the final kilometers with Garmin-Sharp's Alex Howes, then used his knowledge of Howes' strengths and weaknesses to his advantage to soundly beat him in a two-man sprint.
"Alex and I have really similar characteristics, and I knew I couldn't give him an inch," Reijnen said of the finale. "We had a group on our heels, and knew if we hesitated it would ruin the day for both of us. I threw up in the last kilometer. We gave it our all."
The two friends not only train together, but took a boxing class over the winter and did some sparring. The gloves came off today, however, when Howes attacked in the run-in to the finish in Aspen, and Reijnen went with him. They caught earlier attacker Javier Megias (Novo Nordisk), then fought it out for the stage glory.
"When I saw Alex go, I knew it could be the race. At that point I did my best to not look back. The best thing about being friends is our goals are aligned, we were both committed. That only lasted 3km. I can think of no one I'd rather lose to more than Alex, and I think he would say the same thing. It was a fair fight, neither one of us would ever want anything but that."
The team didn't just succeed in putting Reijnen into the jersey, they shone all 98 kilometers of the stage, putting Danny Summerhill into the breakaway, where he won both intermediate sprints to gain the most courageous rider jersey, and succeeded in cracking top sprinters like Elia Viviani, whose Cannondale team had patrolled the front of the peloton all day.
"Viviani is maybe not so used to altitude," Reijnen said. "I'm by no means a pure sprinter. With [Cannondale] on the front, they'll sag the climbs to keep Viviani out of trouble, and we could only let that happen for so long.
"Danny dropped out early from the break to help me, and I had Chris Jones set pace on the final lap to keep the pace high. He did a phenomenal job at that. Once Chris swung off, I had Lucas Euser in a group of maybe 25 guys. I knew I was the fasted rider in the group, it was just a matter of keeping momentum. Lucas was there to help cover some stuff.
"Everyone on the team should be up here," he said. "They did an amazing job. I owe this victory to them."
It's an important moment for the team, which has few of these stage race victories to show for their constant efforts. Rory Sutherland's 2012 USA Pro Challenge stage win in Flagstaff was memorable, but to win on a stage where team owners, sponsors and family are present was a big moment.
"It's really important to the team to do well here. To come away with the victory is huge," Reijnen said.
With three jerseys to wear, he joked he could swap them during the stage. "If you're going to win a stage, the first day is the one to do it," he said.
"We do a lot of races throughout the year, but this is the most important one on my calendar. It means the world to me, because I live here, and because of the fans and the support base."
When asked how long he thought he could keep it, he said, "I have a great team supporting me. I'm not the best climber out there, but I can get over them. I think we'll do everything we can to keep the jersey as long as we can."