KEBLER PASS — The slow ascent up Gunnison County Road 12, a high-altitude, meandering dirt route, was already taking its toll on the main group of riders.
The peloton was stringing out, with cyclists jettisoning out the back. Gradually, the road turned to mud as bone-chilling rain pounded the riders and lightning illuminated the 12,000-foot peaks off in the distance here Tuesday afternoon.
Throughout Stage 2 of the USA Pro Challenge, BMC cyclists had led the way, doing the work to keep the peloton in close contact with breaks and expending precious energy. Garmin-Sharp riders, executing their morning race plan, waited for their moment to set up Golden's Alex Howes for a stage win. The riders reached the summit of Kebler Pass, then began a fast, steep, wet, precarious descent into Crested Butte.
Suddenly, race officials made an unprecedented call for the Pro Challenge, "neutralizing" the descent, in effect nullifying any gains or losses on the downhill about six miles from the finish line because of safety concerns. They ordered riders to stop at the bottom. And after a delay of several minutes to regroup and explain what they were doing, they restarted the race.
Robin Carpenter, 22, of the Hincapie Sportswear Development, held a 45-second lead at that point and held on for the stage win by seven seconds over a fast-closing group of riders, including Howes, for his first professional victory.
"It's huge for us. For me, it's massive," Carpenter said. "It's definitely the best ride I've ever had in my short career so far. I'm really excited about it; can't really believe it. Couldn't believe it until about 200 meters to go."
With the stoppage, riders showed noticeable confusion and anger, feeling they had already ridden the course's most dangerous parts. Without race radios, which aren't allowed at an event of this classification, according to UCI rules, cyclists had no way of knowing what was happening.
"If you were going to neutralize it because of how dangerous the race was, you need to do that before the dirt, but we had already ridden all the dangerous sections and had 10K to go, all on pavement," race favorite Tejay van Garderen said. "And then they just stop us in the middle of the road, and the rain was coming down hard, and we're out there in Lycra. And when you stop there like that, you get pretty cold. So we're out there shivering and freezing. We wanted to keep going."
Crews poured out of vehicles to give their riders rain jackets. After the restart, Carpenter was given the lead he had when the race was stopped. The pursuit into Crested Butte was on.
"I couldn't understand what was happening," Carpenter said. "We'd already passed over the dirt section. I would have expected a neutralization toward the top, or someone telling me to slow down, maybe. First thought was, 'I need a jacket, like ASAP. Otherwise I'm going to fall over and die from hypothermia."
Inside the Garmin-Sharp lead team car, sports director Robbie Hunter drove, with mechanic Alex Banyay in the back seat. The atmosphere was tense. Hunter pulled alongside his riders to provide jackets, simultaneously imploring them to find the inner strength to press ahead and help Howes pull out a stage win with less than six miles to go.
A chase group that included van Garderen, Howes, Garmin-Sharp's Tom Danielson and Trek Factory Racing's Jens Voigt made the climb up Mount Crested Butte chasing Carpenter, still in the lead. Van Garderen attacked, and Howes followed close behind, conserving energy just off his wheel.
Inside 200 meters, Howes inched ahead of van Garderen to finish second in the stage and claim the yellow jersey as the overall race leader as rain continued to fall.
"It was really disorganized, and we were kind of talking amongst ourselves even when we were going pretty hard. 'Are we doing this? Are we racing? Are we not racing?' " Howes said. "We kind of came to the conclusion that we were going to do it. Tejay hit out with just under a (kilometer) to go, and I followed his wheel.
"Thankfully nobody got hurt."
Stage 2 at a glance
Big winner: Robin Carpenter, a 22-year-old racer from Philadelphia who rides for the Hincapie Sportswear Development team, made a break from the peleton going up Kebler Pass and held on to claim the first stage win of his career by seven seconds over Boulder rider Alex Howes of Garmin-Sharp.
Falling back: Boulder's Kiel Reijnen (UnitedHealthcare), who edged Howes by inches to win Stage 1 in Aspen on Monday, finished two minutes and 18 seconds back in 50th place.
What's next: A 96-mile ride that begins at 7,700 feet in Gunnison. With a climb over 11,312-foot Monarch Pass, a 4,200-foot descent into Salida and a mountain finish at the Monarch Ski Area (10,820 feet), this figures to be a pivotal stage. Start: 11:25 a.m., with expected finish time 3:40 p.m. TV: 1:30 p.m., NBCSN
John Meyer, The Denver Post