Gage Hecht surprised a lot of people on Thursday in Vail when he soloed away from a breakaway over the final 14.1km circuit at the Colorado Classic, taking the biggest win of his career and the biggest-ever win for his second-year Aevolo Cycling development team.
The 20-year-old from Parker, Colorado, bridged to a three-rider move about halfway through the 109km race, joining up with Trek-Segafredo's Niklas Eg, Pascal Eenkhoorn (LottoNL-Jumbo) and UnitedHealthcare's Alex Cataford.
In the post-race press conference, Hecht admitted he started the move with low expectations.
"To be honest, no, really," he said when asked if he imagined Friday's result was possible when he started the day.
"My first thought when I started that bridge was, 'Maybe I can make it up to this break and score, like, one or two KOM points and have my name on the results, which would be really cool at the end of the day.'"
Hecht definitely accomplished getting his name in the results, but rather than a single line in the mountain-points standings, Hecht took the stage win and the leader's jersey, as well as the points jersey, the mountains jersey and the jersey for best young rider. Not a bad haul for a guy who said he didn't expect any of his moves to stick.
"After scoring the KOM points, I knew I still had enough strength to maybe put a gap into the group, but I thought for sure they'd catch me once I put that attack down," he said.
The trio of former breakaway partners never caught him, and neither did the field, which had closed to within six seconds by the line, but simply didn't have the horsepower to finish off the job.
In the end, Travis McCabe (UnitedHealthcare) sprinted to second place, followed across the line by Holowesko-Citadel's Joe Lewis. But there was no doubt about who stole the show on day one in Colorado. And McCabe said that, despite Hecht's humble responses, he was not at all surprised by the result.
"I'm happy with second," McCabe said. "I'm pretty pumped that Gage got the win, and in awesome style. When you win and you don't see anyone behind you at the finish line, that's pretty awesome.
"I'm not surprised," he continued. "If you see the way Gage has been riding all year, he's been off the front in every race. He's been super-aggressive in all the races he's done, and that's kind of the way Aevolo races. They race intelligently, and they have some of the top U23 guys in the US who can perform. You saw that in Utah, and I think you see that now. Chapeau, man."
'I've learned so much'
Hecht earned his day on the top step of the podium and in the leader's jersey at a 2.HC race in just his second year with the development team that former pro Mike Creed started last year.
A junior and U23 cyclo-cross national champion, Hecht has shown tons of promise both on the mud and on the road, but his win on Thursday is at another level for both him and his team.
"I've learned so much," Hecht said of his two years at Aevolo. "Mike Creed does a really good job of helping us develop what he calls race craft: learning how to not only move in the field and make sure you're in position for stuff, but also which moves to go with. It's just a huge culmination of stuff he brings to the table and helps us learn.
"I don't think we'll ever be quite as smart as he is," Hecht said of his team director. "He's got just a wealth of knowledge to give to us, so that's really cool to have."
As a 20-year-old, Hecht could consider returning with Aevolo in 2019, but he's already won the U23 time trial and criterium with the team this year, and was fifth in the senior national time trial championships. He could therefore very well expect to hear from some of the bigger teams for next season, but in the tough US market with both Jelly Belly-Maxxis and UnitedHealthcare likely shuttering their programmes next year, it's a buyer's market.
"Cycling's a hard sport, and opportunities are hard to find sometimes, but I'm just going to keep trying to be positive about things and move forward the best I can, and keep good relations with all the teams I know," Hecht said. "I think that's the best I can do. I know God has a plan for me, and he's going to put me where he wants me.
"I still love 'cross, and I want to keep racing that as best I can," said Hecht. "Maybe someday that can be my profession as well. It just depends on where the sport wants to take me."
On Friday, the sport will take Hecht to the Vail Pass time trial for stage 2 of the Colorado Classic. The 16.2km route starts in Vail Village and then almost immediately heads up the pass, which tops out at more than 2,950 metres of elevation. Hecht is obviously a top time triallist, but he said he wasn't sure about Friday's uphill test.
"Climbing definitely isn't one of my strongest pieces of riding, but we'll see," he said. "I'm excited for a time trial, but after a day like today with all the workload, I don't know how fast I'll be.
"But I'm going to give it my all and see what happens. Of course, I'll be rooting for Luis Villalobos and Alex Hoen, my teammates, who are both pretty strong GC riders as well, and see how those guys do.
"It's going to be pretty cool to start as the last rider. I've never been able to do that in a stage race this big."
If you've ever wanted to know what it feels like to be part of a top-level cycling team, and to be on the ground, inside the barriers, at the Tour de France, then RUNNING WITH WOLVES will take you there. It is available to rent for $3.99 USD or buy for $6.99 USD.