Hincapie leads U.S. sweep as Cycling Challenge hits Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Hincapie leads U.S. sweep as Cycling Challenge hits Aspen

George Hincapie of BMC Racing celebrates winning the Queen Stage of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge as he crosses the finish line in downtown Aspen on Wednesday afternoon. Tejay Van Garderen finished in second place for the stage and took the overall lead in the race. (Patrick Ghidossi/The Aspen Times)

ASPEN – It has been 23 years since Aspen last hosted men’s professional bicycle racing. It was worth the wait.

George Hincapie led an American sweep of the podium in Stage 2 of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge with a sprint to the finish line that separated the top six racers by fractions of a second after nearly 5 1⁄2 hours on the road. The finish order was in doubt until just before the line in front of the Pitkin County Courthouse on Main Street. Hincapie finished with his arms raised triumphantly in the air.

Americans Tejay Van Garderen of HTC-Highroad and Tom Danielson of Team Garmin-Cervelo finished second and third, respectively.

Hincapie, a member of the BMC Racing Team and a longtime favorite of U.S. cycling fans, said he was eager to win a new stage race on native soil.

“You see the fans out there, it’s very motivating,” he said. “It was nice to be able to finish in such a beautiful city with your hands in the air.”

The grueling climb up Independence Pass fractured the peloton and made some top racers suffer in the thin air. Colombia’s Rafael Infantino attacked on the ascent and opened a gap of 30 seconds before Van Garderen counter-attacked less than a mile from the summit.

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“The reason I attacked is because I looked around, and it looked like everybody was suffering, but it was still a really big group,” Van Garderen said. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to have this big of a group going into that crazy of a descent.'”

Van Garderen, American Christian Vande Velde of Garmin-Cervelo and American Levi Leipheimer of RadioShack, who was in the yellow leader’s jersey at the time, caught Infantino after swarming over the summit. Van Garderen said he thought that group of four would race first to the finish line. He was surprised when a larger group that included Hincapie caught them on the descent with roughly 10 miles to go.

Shortly after the group coalesced, rain started falling and presented an opportunity for the racers with the strongest nerves.

“All due respect to Levi, he’s not the strongest descender,” Van Garderen said. “He sometimes loses his nerve a little bit. That’s one of my strong suits: I’ve got balls, so I just went for it. When I saw we had a gap, we just drove it.”

The descent on the wet road scrambled the order and allowed Danielson and Hincapie to surge to the front with Van Garderen and three others. Hincapie said he knew Danielson and Van Garderen would push the pace because of their quest for the overall leader’s yellow jersey.

“I was able to sit back a bit in the last 3 or 4 kilometers and knew I had a chance to win the stage,” Hincapie said.

“I was confident I could win. Tejay got a gap in some of the corners. I had to kind of sprint around Tom Danielson to catch Tejay, but once I caught him, I knew it was over and I was going to win the stage.”

Hincapie won in a time of 5 hours, 26 seconds and 10 seconds. Van Garderen, Danielson and the next three finishers were credited with the same time because of the small gap at the finish line. The stage covered 131 miles, starting in Gunnison and crossing both Cottonwood and Independence passes, both at more than 12,000 feet in elevation.

Tour de France winner Cadel Evans led the first chase group and finished seventh, 45 seconds behind the winners.

The Pro Cycling Challenge started Monday with a prologue in Colorado Springs. The first stage was from Salida to Mount Crested Butte. The final stage will be Sunday in Golden and Denver.

Van Garderen’s second-place finish in the stage vaulted him into first overall. Hincapie is second, 16 seconds behind. Danielson is third, 22 seconds back. Leipheimer fell to fourth overall, 34 seconds behind.

Hincapie said he will do his best in the individual time trial in Vail Thursday, but he wasn’t necessarily expecting to challenge for the winner’s yellow jersey.

“I didn’t come in here with the intention of winning the overall. I wanted to win a stage, and I’ve done that,” Hincapie said. “Being that I’m in a good position, I’ll try to stay up in the overall as high as possible.”

Van Garderen said it was special to take the yellow jersey in Aspen, the home of his girlfriend, Jessica Phillips, also a pro cyclist.

“I spend a lot of time in Aspen,” Van Garderen said. “I couldn’t have picked a better day to take the jersey because I have a lot of fans and a lot of friends here, so it’s really, really special.”

The day wasn’t so special for some racers: Andy Schleck, runner-up in the Tour de France, suffered on the Independence Pass climb and finished 3 minutes, 55 seconds back in 48th place. An accident at the base of Cottonwood Pass also knocked out a handful of racers. Details weren’t immediately available.

scondon@aspentimes.com

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