The USA Pro Challenge was a significant international event televised in 180 countries, but it wound up being a very special week for a couple of riders proud to call Colorado home.
As Sunday's final episode showcased the passion Front Range communities have for endurance sports with massive crowds gathering in Boulder, Golden, Lakewood and downtown Denver, Golden native Alex Howes of Garmin-Sharp won the stage. Having suffered narrow runner-up finishes Monday and Tuesday, Howes won with an electrifying finish at the Civic Center.
Sunday's 78-mile route took Howes past the elementary school he attended (Shelton) and his high school (Golden). It took him up Lookout Mountain, a favorite of local riders, a 1,300-foot climb he has made countless times.
And when the race was done, it brought him to tears.
"The emotion that best describes it is pride," said Howes, 26, his voice cracking. "A lot of the Europeans, they don't really understand what America is. They think it's Las Vegas, New York City, Miami. To me, this is what America is. It's big, open mountains, it's little towns, it's home, it's beautiful. Just having the opportunity to show that off to the world, and my home mountain on Lookout ... very proud."
It was special for Tejay van Garderen of BMC Racing, too. The man who has finished fifth twice in the Tour de France attended Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins and lived for a time in Boulder. Now he lives in Aspen with his wife, who grew up there, and their 16-month-old daughter.
Van Garderen claimed the yellow jersey on Stage 3 with a remarkable surge to the top of Monarch Mountain and never yielded it, winning the Pro Challenge overall title for the second year in a row.
"A lot of times you're in a race, it feels like stress, you have a job to do and you've got to perform," van Garderen said. "This is just our home. It feels more like we're doing a training camp, where we have the text message, 'Hey, meet at the coffee shop at noon.' Or maybe 9. Now that I have a baby, my training starts a little earlier.
"It just felt like fun. We're riding with all of our friends here in our hometowns and home state, and it was an amazing week. It was fun to share that with all of my European teammates."
It was a good week for Boulder-based Garmin-Sharp as well. Tom Danielson finished second in the overall behind van Garderen. Howes had those second-place finishes in Aspen and Crested Butte, and Danielson was second in Saturday's grueling time trial up Vail Pass.
All those runner-up finishes gave Howes extra motivation when the moment of truth came in downtown Denver. With thousands roaring in the shadow of the state capitol, he won the stage by a wheel-length over Kiel Reijnen of UnitedHealthcare, who did the same thing to him Monday in Aspen.
"For our team to come so close, that was hard for us to take," Howes said. "The way my teammates rode out there today, with all their hearts, for me, in my home state, hometown, I couldn't lose."
Van Garderen came in as the man to beat. Over the course of 524 miles and 20-plus hours of racing, he beat Danielson — a former Boulder rider — by 92 seconds.
"He was really incredible this week, and his team was fantastic," Danielson said. "We did our best, we went for stages and we went for (the overall), and that made it very, very difficult on my teammates. But every single person stepped up, and in my opinion our second place here is a win — capped off by a win by Alex. It was a fantastic week, and I'm very proud to stand next to Tejay on the podium in second place."
John Meyer: 303-954-1616, email@example.com or twitter.com/johnmeyer
Near-misses, then a big win: Golden's Alex Howes nearly pulled off wins in Stage 1 and Stage 2 in Crested Butte. On Sunday he gave Garmin-Sharp a huge lift by winning Stage 7.
Monarch of the tour: Tejay van Garderen made a huge push in the final kilometer to the summit of Monarch Mountain on Stage 3 to claim the yellow jersey. Then he sealed his overall win with a remarkable time trial Saturday on Vail Pass.
No place like Colorado: Crowds were massive, especially in Aspen, Colorado Springs, Boulder, Golden, Lakewood and Denver. Racers said the only other place with crowds like this are at the Tour de France.
Unforgettable farewell: Jens Voigt, 42, thrilled crowds with his crazy attacks and a near-win in Colorado Springs.