American TJ Eisenhart narrowly missed out on the stage 2 win in the Colorado Classic in Breckenridge, but thanks to his day-long breakaway during which he swept up two intermediate time bonuses, the Holowesko-Citadel rider is in the race leader's jersey by one second over Friday's winner Alex Howes (Cannondale-Drapac). He now faces a fierce battle to hold onto for the overall race win over Howes, who has promised to throw everything he can at his young rival.
However, the 23-year-old Eisenhart was relaxed and just enjoying "being in the moment" in the post-stage press conference, admiring how his new blue leader's jersey colour coordinated with his signature turquoise necklace and sunglasses.
"This jersey is wicked cool. I love it, it matches my turquoise, it matches my eyes. My mom always told me I looked good in blue. So, I love that," Eisenhard joked before getting serious about discussing the race situation.
"Cannondale is going to go berserk for that. It'll be a tight race. It will be crazy, but I'm not concerned about it. Maybe I'll worry about it in the race, but right now I'm just stoked to be here. It's always lame and bad when you're already thinking about how you're going to keep this jersey now – we're in the here and now. The future doesn't even exist and the past is over."
Eisenhart's race lead came from an attack almost from the gun that was entirely unplanned. He said he just "felt good" and decided to go for it, and ended up staying away for the entire day, netting the mountains jersey and race lead and second on the stage.
"Going into [the stage] I knew I wanted to do something special. I tried and tried in Tour of Utah, but it wasn't meant to be. The plan was for me to sit in and chill, and try at the end. As soon as we hit the first climb I felt great, and it dawned on me that everyone else was suffering pretty hard."
He had for company a familiar face: Daniel Eaton (UnitedHealthcare), who was a teammate in their junior days. The pair stayed together until the sixth lap when Eaton faded and Eisenhart continued solo. Finally, from the chasing field, he was caught by Howes, Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo) and Sepp Kuss (Rally), who crashed on the descent. Stetina attacked on the final climb, but couldn't shake Eisenhart or Howes. Eisenhart tried to attack on the descent but didn't get away and was out-sprinted by Howes at the line.
"I was in a dreamscape the whole day, not even thinking it was real. I felt great all day, and I'm definitely on some good fitness coming off Utah. There was no disappointment coming across the line, I was just blown. Being at this altitude, this major headache just all of a sudden overwhelmed my head. I needed time to decompress and absorb everything. I just didn't win the stage, it's not a big deal. There are other bike races in my life coming up. I'll just focus on those."
Eisenhart's previous best result since graduating out of the U23 ranks was third in the Tour of the Gila, but he and his teammates have shown that despite being a Continental team, they have the strength, aggression and cunning to go up against the best in the sport. Last year Robin Carpenter won the Tour of Alberta and a stage in the Tour of Utah. In 2015 Toms Skujins earned a WorldTour contract with Cannondale through his stage win in the Tour of California.
Both Rally Cycling and Axeon Hagens Berman have announced they will move to the Pro Continental ranks next year, but the status of Holowesko-Citadel is still being decided. Eisenhart says the UCI category doesn't matter to him.
"It doesn't matter what division we are, I always think that's silly – we're the lowest division but yet we're racing WorldTour riders, all it is is just acceptance in the races. My team is beyond strong."
His experiment as a trainee with BMC at the WorldTour level last year did not translate into a contract, and Eisenhart isn't ruling out an eventual move, but is keeping his focus, as he repeatedly states, in the moment. "If there's a team I feel comfortable on and I'd like to go to, that'd be nice, but I'm here to win with Hincapie now.
"It's silly to look at it as a stepping stone. You have to look at where you are and learn from where you are. Make it the best year ever. At the end of the year, if it's time to move on, it's time to move on. The whole team understands that. Right now I am focused on winning for the team, family, fans and myself. I'm just loving it, man."
Holowesko-Citadel has given Eisenhart the freedom to be himself, and no moment showed that more profoundly than on the climb during stage 2. While on the attack with Eaton, Eisenhart was playing with the crowd and "shooting hang-loose signs at my brother". That kind of clowning around is normally reserved for the gruppetto, not the breakaway. But Eisenhart is not your normal bike racer.
"A lot of people would say I shouldn't waste energy like that, but that's how I thrive. A lot of European teams or a lot of people think I shouldn't be joking around like that, but that makes me, me. It's why I've had a lot of success this year. The team respects that. The team knows that if TJ is happy he's going to crush some skulls.
"I always laugh because the fans are the only reason the sport exists. It's the same with every sport. It's almost frowned upon to always be around the fans, be signing autographs taking photos right after. The fans are why we're here. It's crucial."