With the general classification battle about to begin in earnest at the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado, BMC's Tejay van Garderen is sitting in prime position to lay claim to the yellow leader's jersey. The 25-year-old from Boulder is fourth overall after three stages, just 11 seconds behind Garmin-Sharp's Lachlan Morton. Thursday's stage 4 promises to be a throw-down amongst the overall contenders.
"I'm feeling good," van Garderen told Cyclingnews after the stage 3 finish in Steamboat Springs. "I don't want to be too confident, but I definitely like where I'm sitting. I have an OK buffer on some of the GC guys, but the two big GC days are yet to come."
The 165.6km stage 4 route from Steamboat Springs to Beaver Creek is the race's queen stage, featuring the debut of the Bachelor Gulch climb, which tilts up to 18 percent in the finale. The peloton will then negotiate a technical descent before the final 2km kicker up to Beaver Creek Village.
Friday's stage 5 time trial in Vail provides a gentle grade early on the 16.1km route before a steady ascent to more than 9,500 feet (2895.6 meters) in the finale. The stage was part of the inaugural race in 2011 and saw Levi Leipheimer beat Christian Vande Velde by just 58 hundredths of a second, while van Garderen finished sixth and lost his leader's jersey, leaving him with a score to settle.
"Yeah, I want to take a little revenge there," he said.
Van Gardern also wore yellow in 2012 but lost the lead to Vande Velde during the final-day time trial in Denver, finishing second overall. This year he's focused on climbing onto the podium's top step when the race concludes Sunday after the 116.5km Denver circuit race.
BMC director Allan Peiper said van Garderen is well prepared for the final stages and has a strong team backing up his GC hopes this year.
"He's in a great position, and the team is strong around him," Peiper said. "We were lucky today that we haven't had to use any energy, just in the final our boys rode a little bit for Greg and kept Tejay out of trouble, so that's the main thing. I think he's in prime position, and I think more weight is going to fall on our shoulders tomorrow, but we're ready for it, and that's what we came here for."
Despite Morton's current lead, van Garderen tagged Garmin veterans Vande Velde and Tom Danielson as the other likely contenders for the overall, as well as his teammate Mathias Frank, who trails Morton by just two seconds.
Van Garderen wouldn't say whether stage 4 or stage 5 was more important for the overall battle, but Peiper said he'd like to see his rider in yellow going into the Friday time trial.
"Sure, but you're not going to choose what you can do" Peiper said. "It depends on how the race unfolds tomorrow, but if he's in yellow that's also good. He's still going to ride the TT the same way."
If van Garderen does come away from the time trial in yellow, he'll still have to defend the jersey for two final stages."
"That stage into Fort Collins isn't easy," admitted van Garderen. "But I've got a strong team and we'll be more than ready to control things if that happens."
Saturday's stage 6 runs from Loveland to Fort Collins and could be the final chance for a general classification shake-up, but the day's only categorized climb of Devils Gulch, the race's final KOM, is situated midway through the 185.4km stage. There are some steep rollers on the approach to Ft. Collins around Horsetooth Reservoir, but it could likely be a day for the sprinters or the breakaway specialists. The mostly flat closing circuit race in Denver looks suited to the sprinters.