8/19/2013 - NEWS!

Sagan wins opening stage at the USA Pro Challenge

Slovakian earns first leader's jersey


Peter Sagan (Cannondale) lived up to expectations and sprinted to victory in the opening stage of the USA Pro Challenge. The 23-year-old Slovakian champion won the bunch gallop in Aspen, Colorado at the conclusion of the 97.6km circuit race and earned the first leader's jersey of the seven-day event.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) placed second, followed by Kiel Reijnen (UnitedHealthcare) in third from a peloton which fractured in the aftermath of the day's final climb, the category four McLain Flats with 9.7km to go. The first 17 riders were all on Sagan's winning time, while Joe Dombrowski (Sky) led in a 23-rider group five seconds in arrears.

"Maybe I was a favorite for people, but for me I am very surprised," said Sagan. "I am very happy. Thank you to all of my teammates, because they were on the front and pulled the group for the whole of the race. And we are very happy when we took the victory for the team."

Sagan had been in Aspen for two weeks, acclimating to the altitude and beginning his build-up to the world championships, and felt no ill effects during his first ever USA Pro Challenge stage.

"I felt very good," said Sagan. "I think this helped me, and maybe it was key for the win today. It was hard, but the climbs were not very long. We did tempo and on the last loop we rode hard on the last climb. The last 10km was good for me."

A late race attack from George Bennett (RadioShack Leopard) and Carter Jones (Bissell), which emerged from a seven-man group formed after the final KOM, was caught with just one kilometre remaining. Sagan himself was among the attackers in the seven-man escape, but his stint off the front didn't temper his final, stage-winning effort.

"I attacked because I thought we were a good group," said Sagan. "But when I was on the front nobody wanted to work with me. I said it's better to wait for the group and do a good sprint. And so I tried and I won."

As there are no time bonuses on offer in the USA Pro Challenge, today's stage results were mirrored on general classification with Sagan leading Van Avermaet and Reijnen, tied on time. The stage proved deceptively difficult as gaps formed on the final lap and only 17 riders were credited with the winner's time. More than half the peloton is already 5+ minutes off the pace on an opening stage of less than 100 kilometres.

Tour de France champion Chris Froome (Sky) confirmed his pre-race comments about not being on top form as he finished in a group at 4:59, along with top-10 Tour finisher Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), while Froome's teammate Richie Porte rolled in amidst a group 6:41 down.

Tomorrow Sagan will face two colossal climbs in Independence Pass and Hoosier Pass and the Slovakian downplayed his chances to remain in the leader's jersey.

"Maybe tomorrow will be harder, but I am happy for today," said Sagan. "We will see day by day, but there are a lot of climbs."

A day for the sprinters?

Aspen, Colorado has been a staple of the first two USA Pro Challenge editions, and for 2013 the renowned ski town served as host for an opening day circuit race. Starting and finishing in the downtown, the clockwise, 32.5km circuit would be negotiated three times by the 128-rider strong peloton and featured a trek out to Snowmass Village, base camp for the racers and race organisation in the build-up to today.

Two intermediate sprints were on tap for the day, at the end of the first and second laps, while four KOMS would be contested as well, with category 4 ascents to Snowmass and McLain Flats on offer on both the second and third circuits.

There was much speculation about how the opening stage would be raced, whether there would be tactics similar to Garmin-Sharp's all-out assault from the gun in last year's opening stage, and while the opening kilometres proved aggressive the WorldTour squads largely kept their powder dry for the day as the Pro Continental and Continental squads went out on the attack.

Under glorious sunshine and temperatures comfortably in the 70s Fahrenheit, the first attack formed soon after passing kilometre zero and was comprised of seven riders: Davide Villella (Cannondale), Craig Lewis (Champion System), Jarlinson Pantano (Colombia), Jeremy Vennell (Bissell), Ryan Eastman (Bontrager), Tyler Wren and Carson Miller (Jamis-Hagens Berman).

This escape was neutralised after eight kilometres, and Craig Lewis immediately counter-attacked and would be joined by Matt Cooke (Jamis-Hagens Berman) and Ian Burnett (Jelly Belly p/b Kenda). The peloton seemed content with the composition of the break and the trio steadily pushed out their lead as Cannondale came to the fore in the field to assume pace-making duties.

When Burnett led Lewis and Cooke across the finish line at the conclusion of the opening lap their lead stood at 2:35, which would prove to be their largest advantage of the day. As the break headed out onto the second circuit KOMs were now on tap and Cooke showed his climbing prowess by taking top honours at both Snowmass and McLain Flats.

Cannondale continued to work for Sagan, setting tempo in the field, and by the start of the final lap the break's lead had been reduced to 1:35. Cooke made his KOM tally three-for-three as he reached the Snowmass climb first, but on the descent afterwards their advantage began to drop precipitously.

Inside of 15km remaining RadioShack Leopard upped the ante in the peloton and reduced the break's lead to 25 seconds while up front Burnett cracked and would quickly be absorbed. At this point the field began to splinter, with Chris Froome figuring prominently among the riders unable to keep pace.

Cooke dropped Lewis on the ascent to the day's final KOM, and the Jamis-Hagens Berman rider would remain resilient to make a clean sweep of all four KOMs and the subsequent classification leader's jersey.

Just as Cooke was about to be caught, a break went clear with six riders and the Jamis-Hagens Berman rider found the strength to latch on. In addition to Cooke, the lead group consisted of George Bennett (RadioShack Leopard), Peter Sagan (Cannondale), Javier Mejías Leal (Novo Nordisk), Carter Jones (Bissell), Ben Jacques-Maynes (Jamis-Hagens Berman) and Tom Zirbel (Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies).

At six kilometres to go the seven-man escape split, with Bennett and Jones going clear. One kilometre later the remainder of the escapees would be absorbed, while the RadioShack Leopard and Bissell duo charged to the finish with a 20-second lead.

BMC led the pursuit, and at the flamme rouge Bennett and Jones were caught. Three turns remained on the streets of Aspen, and coming out of the final right-hand turn at 250 metres to go Sagan was well-positioned in fourth wheel. What was considered the inevitable became a reality as the Slovakian champion turned on the afterburners and accelerated to a clear victory ahead of Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Kiel Reijnen (UnitedHealthcare).

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Peter Sagan (Cannondale) looks back to check the gap he put on the field after an attack.
Photo: © Jonathan Devich

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