MONARCH MOUNTAIN — The evil "queen stage" of the USA Pro Challenge took riders 96 miles from Gunnison over Monarch Pass at 11,213 feet on the Continental Divide, down to Salida and back up to Monarch Mountain. But the nearly four-hour grind that unfolded over 155 kilometers was decided with one kilometer to go.

Aspen's Tejay van Garderen made a strong move late in the grueling mountain finish on Wednesday, winning Stage 3 and claiming the yellow jersey for BMC Racing on a day that included almost 10,000 feet of high-altitude climbing.

Van Garderen, the Pro Challenge's defending champion and a heavy favorite to repeat after finishing fifth at the Tour de France, held off Polish rider Rafal Majka of Tinkoff-Saxo in a sprint to the finish line after a series of moves and counter moves within a lead pack of 14 riders over the last 20 miles.

Van Garderen holds a 20-second lead over Majka in the overall standings when racing resumes Thursday in Colorado Springs. Ben Hermans of BMC is third, 23 seconds back, and Garmin-Sharp's Tom Danielson is in fourth, 34 seconds behind.

"Danielson was the biggest concern for us," van Garderen said. "But right now I'm thinking we're going to need to watch Majka the most."

Van Garderen took the yellow jersey from Boulder's Alex Howes, a Garmin rider who finished almost two minutes back after placing second in the first two stages.

The climb from Salida got increasingly steep as it approached the finish at 10,820 feet, and the lead pack included most of the racers with hopes of winning the overall title. With riders fighting a headwind, van Garderen was well protected by his BMC teammates. He bided his time while others launched attacks and waited for his moment, which he seized with a burst of speed that Majka couldn't match.

"I felt pretty well under control," van Garderen said. "It was a little bit confusing because Garmin had the jersey but they didn't want to control the jersey. They wanted to keep jumping and ride aggressively. Just to simplify it, we put our team on the front just to kind of neutralize things and keep it under control so there wasn't a group that was getting up the road that was getting out of hand."

Danielson and others repeatedly attacked as the riders neared the finish.

"We wanted to force them to ride" up front, Danielson said. "I don't have the same acceleration as Tejay has. ... I didn't want it to come down to 1K. That's why I was attacking so much at the bottom. But there was so much headwind, and it's such a steep climb. We made a plan to race it super aggressively. And it didn't really turn out the way we wanted to."

From left: Ruben Zepuntke, Chris Butler and Rob Britton start their descent down Monarch Pas during Stage 3 of the USA Pro Challenge on Wednesday.
From left: Ruben Zepuntke, Chris Butler and Rob Britton start their descent down Monarch Pas during Stage 3 of the USA Pro Challenge on Wednesday. (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

Asked whether van Garderen, with his big move, had won the overall race at Monarch, Danielson replied: "I don't know."

Altitude won't be a factor in Thursday's stage, but it includes four laps through the beautiful but brutal hills of the Garden of the Gods.

"When I look at it on paper, I see Garden of the Gods and 17-percent grade four times," van Garderen said. "Not easy. But I think we have the strongest team here. Ben Hermans is still third place overall, and we haven't even had him touch the wind yet. He's a big engine that we've kept fresh this whole time."

Denver Post staff writer Daniel Petty contributed to this report.

John Meyer: 303-954-1616, jmeyer@denverpost.com or twitter.com/johnmeyer


Wednesday's stage 3

Big winner: Defending Pro Challenge champion Tejay van Garderen of BMC Racing won the 96-mile stage and took the yellow jersey from Alex Howes of Garmin-Sharp. He edged Polish rider Rafal Majka (Tink- off-Saxo) by inches in a finish sprint and holds a 20-second advantage in the general classification over Majka, who stands second.

Falling back: Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp) made multiple moves, trying to get an advantage on van Garderen in the GC, but finished fifth, 24 seconds behind. The former Boulder resident trails van Garderen by 34 seconds in the GC, a margin he might not be able to make up.

Thursday's Stage 4

What's next: A 70-mile circuit stage in Colorado Springs with four laps that include a 17 percent grade in the Garden of the Gods.

Start: 12:50 p.m., with an expected finish time of 3:45 p.m.

TV: 1:30 p.m., NBCSN