Tejay van Garderen admitted that in the past, he has failed to get the tricky USA Pro Challenge time trial in Vail right, but on Saturday the BMC rider nailed it just right, and smashed his course record to win the stage over Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp) by a 53-second margin.
In 2011, he was in the race's leader's jersey when the time trial came on stage 3, and he lost a massive 51 seconds to eventual race winner Levi Leipheimer. In 2013, although he won the stage, it was only by a narrow four-second margin over Andrew Talansky (Garmin). But this year, van Garderen nailed the pacing on the deceptively tricky course, and in doing so earned the admiration of his competitors and fans alike.
"The first time it couldn't have gone worse," van Garderen reflected on his history with the stage. "I went out way too hard and misjudged my effort. Last year it wasn't bad, but you could see from the splits, I was 30 seconds up at the check, then at the line only 4 seconds ahead. You could see my cadence drop and I was barely holding on at the finish. This year, I felt powerful all the way through."
Heavy, icy rain pelted the late starters, but despite the unfavorable temperatures, van Garderen smashed his record of last year by 36 seconds.
"There was definitely a stiff tailwind, and that helped us out," he said. "It could go either way, the rain and cold slows us down, especially in the corners heading out of town. The tailwind I think overall helped us a bit," he said.
Van Garderen stuck to the equipment choices he dialled in in 2013, but with better pacing, and a tight rein on the adrenaline he felt from the roar of the crowd at the start in Vail, he was able to pull out such a convincing victory that it is a near certainty he will win the overall race tomorrow in Denver. The performance earned the admiration of his competitors like second-placed Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp), and the record holder prior to the inception of the USA Pro Challenge, Ben Day (UnitedHealthcare).
"The level that Tejay and Tom have set is amazing," Day said. "On this course, you need a strong tailwind to get a good time, but if you saw the conditions today, the tailwind was not that strong. And with the rain, the times that were posted today were really impressive."
Danielson, starting fourth from last, caught his two-minute man Matthew Busche, and although he was seeing stars as the altitude robbed his lungs of the oxygen they so desired, he was happy with his performance.
"For a moment, when I saw my time, I thought maybe I won, but then superman here [van Garderen] came flying through. He's the best guy in the race, and to be second to him is a real honor. I'm happy with my performance today."
None of the riders were given time splits against their competitors along the way, but rather paced themselves according to their planned effort: it's a strategy that is particularly important on a course that begins flat and fast, but quickly climbs to high altitudes that provide lung-bursting resistance by the finish line.
"I paced myself evenly," Danielson said. "Like Tejay, I just looked at my power and followed that the whole race. I knew what I was capable of doing, but on this course you watch all the numbers go out the window. You look down and see 300 watts, and think, 'no way can I be doing that and suffering this bad'. But I saw Busche, and I knew I was doing a good time. To see 25 minutes was pretty good."
Van Garderen was especially pleased to get through the test and pass with flying colors. Facing up against Tour de France mountains classification winner Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), just 20 seconds behind him at the start, he knew he could not make any mistakes. But a new level of maturity since his implosion in 2011 meant he had the confidence and preparation to handle the pressure.
"I definitely feel like when I look back to 2011, that I've matured a lot since then. I got in to yellow on the stage in Aspen, and then didn't get any sleep that night. This year I've stayed relaxed, getting a full eight hours of sleep every night."
Van Garderen has only to get through the largely flat final stage from Boulder to Denver to take home his second consecutive title in the USA Pro Challenge, a feat that is looking highly likely.