BMC Racing's Tejay van Garderen was riding high at the USA Pro Challenge Wednesday when he took the stage win and overall lead at Monarch Mountain outside of Salida. He said the finish, which topped out at nearly 3,352 meters above sea level, was the highest of his career.
"This is a good few hundred meters higher than the Stelvio, which is the highest peak that we would do in Europe," van Garderen said after beating Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) to the line at the Colorado ski area. "So it's unlike anything ever."
Van Garderen rode the final climb, a category 2 ascent up the east side of the mountain, with a handful of general classification contenders that included Majka and his Tinkoff teammates Bruno Pires and Pawel Poljanski, Garmin-Sharp's Tom Danielson, Trek Factory Racing's Matthew Busche, Team NetApp-Endura's Bartosz Huzarski and his own BMC teammate Ben Hermans.
After weathering a barrage of attacks from Danielson, Busche, Poljanski and Pires, the 26-year-old, who finished fifth this year at the Tour de France, jumped away in the final kilometer and only Majka could hang with him.
"I was assessing the attacks from Danielson, kind of looking at his body language," van Garderen said about the timing of his own winning move. "At the beginning of the climb his attacks were really strong, but toward the top of the climb they started getting a little bit weaker. Before he would attack and make a really hard tempo, and we'd be suffering on his wheel. And then he'd kind of look around. But they just got a little bit weaker so I knew he was tired, and you have to hit him when he's tired."
Danielson, whose teammate Alex Howes was in yellow, was van Garderen's biggest concern at the start of the day, but that changed by the time van Garderen crossed the line on Monarch Mountain.
"We were in a good position because not only did we have me, we had Ben Hermans, so we could kind of play with that a little bit," van Garderen said. "Danielson was the biggest concern for us, but right now I'm thinking we're going to need to watch Majka the most."
Majka recently won the Tour of Poland and was the mountains classification winner at the Tour de France. He won two stages in France and was third overall until a disastrous result on stage 19 from Maubourguet val d'Adour to Bergerac, where he finished 116th and lost nearly six minutes. He finished the Tour 44th overall.
Van Garderen suffered at the hands of Majka's multiple attacks during the Tour's mountain stages, but he had the upper hand Wednesday on Monarch Mountain. Now he's ready to continue batling Majka all the way to Sunday's finish in Denver.
"He's a young guy, too," van Garderen said of his rival. "He's part of this young generation and he obviously has a huge future. He's done so much already. I have a huge amount of respect for him, but I'm definitely ready to battle him this week."
Although van Garderen has turned his main focus from Danielson to Majka, Garmin is still a possible threat to van Garderen's second consecutive win in Colorado. But he believes he and his BMC team are up to the task of taking on Danielson's argyle armada, as well as the rest of the field.
"The best part is, I think Garmin's playbook is pretty easy to read," van Garderen said. "I remember back in 2012, they had four GC guys with [Peter] Stetina, Howes, Danielson and Christian [VandeVelde]. They would use all of them, and it was really hard to keep them under control. Now it's looking more like Danielson is probably their only guy. So he'll probably be aggressive, but it's not that much of a concern because we only need to watch one guy."
Aside from Majka, who is currently 20 seconds down ahead of Hermans, at 23 seconds, and Danielson, at 34 seconds, van Garderen and BMC will have to keep an eye on at least four more riders who are less than a minute off the GC lead. Jelly Belly-Maxxis rider Serghei Tvetcov is 37 seconds in arrears, followed by Busche at 46 seconds, Carter Jones (Optum pro Cycling) at 49 seconds, and Joey Rosskopf (Hincapie Sportswear) at 55 seconds.
Busche, for one, doesn't believe the top of the general classification has been settled.
"Who knows," Busche responded when Cyclingnews asked if he believed van Garderen had won the overall on Monarch Mountain. "It's a long race yet, so maybe somebody else will crack or I'll have a really good time trial. There's lots of racing left, so we'll see what happens."