Peter Sagan (Cannondale) took his second stage victory of the USA Pro Challenge on Wednesday, winning the 170km trek from Breckenridge to Steamboat Springs ahead of Argos-Shimano's Luka Mezgec and Ryan Anderson (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies).
The Slovakian champion made it look easy, taking a patient approach to the final 200m. While BMC's Greg Van Avermaet jumped early and Anderson took a wide berth on the opposite side of the road, Sagan lithely threaded the needle in between with a powerful surge to take the win by a wheel over the fast-charging Slovenian Mezgec.
"I'm very happy, and I thank all my teammates because they did very good work," Sagan said.
Sagan's teammates rode the front to pull back RadioShack-Leopard's Jens Voigt, who jumped away from a five-rider breakaway with about 50km remaining and was caught just 3km from the line.
"I'm sorry for Jens because he did very hard work on the front," Sagan said. "But when he dropped all the riders from the breakaway there was only one way for him to win the stage."
A crash in the final 2km took down many riders, the worst off was Mike Friedman (Optum), but it did not disrupt the overall lead of Lachlan Morton (Garmin-Sharp), who remains two seconds ahead of Mathias Frank (BMC) in the overall.
A day for the sprinters, or the breakaway?
Stage 3 started with a descent down from the sky-high environment of Breckenridge until the category 3 KOM on Swan Mountain, just 11.3km into the race. Intermediate sprints in Silverthorne and Kremmling followed before the final ascent of the day over Rabbit Ears Pass, a category 2 climb that topped out just 33.7km from the finish in Steamboat Springs. For the second consecutive day, the stage ended with a descent to the finish line.
The pace was fast out of the gate, but the day's breakaway didn't stick until the riders started climbing toward the first KOM. Davide Villella (Cannondale) attacked and was followed over the top by Voigt, mountains classification leader Matt Cooke (Jamis-Hagens Berman), Serghei Tvetcov (Jelly Belly-Kenda) and Tyler Wren (Jamis-Hagens Berman).
Sky Pro Cycling's Josh Edmondson continued to press the pace over the climb and once the peloton took a nature stop, the day's breakaway took shape.
"It was the plan [to go out on the attack]," Edmondson said. "We lost Joe [Dombrowski] this morning and Peter [Kennaugh] yesterday, and realistically we don't have anything for the GC. We thought we'd try for a break and maybe take a stage from that."
Included in the group with Edmondson were Voigt, Villella, Wren and Tvetcov. Voigt said he told his teammates before the start of the stage that he was feeling good and was going to try his luck for his first stage win in Colorado since winning in Beaver Creek last year.
The five escapees built a gap of 2:35 a little more than 30km into the stage. With Tvetcov the highest-placed breakaway rider at more than six minutes down, the Garmin team of race leader Morton was happy to set a moderate tempo to keep the escape in check but also let it have some rope.
"We weren't too fussed about bringing the breakaway back" Morton said. "There was no one who was a major threat, so we just kind of kept it at a good limit, and then [Cannondale] took over to try and chase Jens, and they had a hell of a job because he kind of turned on the afterburners that last 50km."
The group's gap ballooned to 5:10 with just 58km remaining, 17km before the climb of Rabbit Ears Pass began. Voigt must have sensed the pace picking up behind in the field and jumped away from his breakaway companions. With 48.8km remaining, Voigt had 30 seconds on the chasers and was holding a 4:50 gap over the field.
"I saw the group falling apart with different interests and different tactics," Voigt said. "I think the Cannondale rider got the order from his car to stop pulling, and if you only have five riders and one stops, it's a fifth of the group that doesn't work anymore, so to speak, and it creates disbalance. Before it's like a fellowship, but then it falls apart and you five individuals trying to win. So I decided an attack would be the best defense."
The German veteran poured it on and increased his lead to 2:20 over his former breakaway companions about 5km from the final KOM, causing Cannondale to take over the chase in hopes of bringing things together so that Sagan could try for another sprint win.
At the top of Rabbit Ears Pass, Voigt had 1:55 on the chase and 3:35 on the field, which was beginning to sweep up the remnants of the break. With the help of several other riders from sprinters' teams, Cannondale pulled Voigt back near the finish and a field sprint was inevitable.
"With 5km or 6km to go I saw it was down underneath a minute," Voigt said. "I did a quick calculation on how much time I was going to need in the headwind and how fast they were going to go behind me, and I figured this might be a little too short for me today. So I saw it coming a little bit, but I was still disappointed."
A crash just after the catch caused some confusion in the hard-charging peloton, and BMC hit the front for Van Avermaet, while Sagan set himself up just behind for another win. Although Wednesday's near-miss was disappointing, Voigt hesitantly said he'd be looking for another try later in the week.
"Just in a month I'll be 42, so give me some rest," he joked with reporters. "I'm an old man here. Tomorrow is going to be a very, very hard day. The GC is probably going to be decided, so I think it is [Morton's] day tomorrow. I'll just try to hang on and finish tomorrow and the TT and then after that it's all open and we can go however and whenever we want."
And if Voigt doesn't get his stage win this year, he can always go on the attack just to enjoy the scenery. As Tevtcov explained it, the sites along the way were a big topic of discussion among himself and the veteran RadioShack rider.
"He just was impressed with the views," Tvetcov said of his discussions with Voigt. "When we went by the lake I said, 'Yeah, look at that view.'And he turned and said, 'I wish I could go fishing here.'"
Rider Name (Country) Team
Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale Pro Cycling
Luka Mezgec (Slo) Team Argos-Shimano
Ryan Anderson (Can) Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies
Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing Team
Alessandro Bazzana (Ita) UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team