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Making the Final Miles Count the Most

By DAVID O. WILLIAMS, www.nytimes.com

VAIL, Colo. — Davis Phinney, the former Colorado cycling star, says Greg LeMond’s eight-second victory over Laurent Fignon in the 1989 Tour de France was the impetus for moving the individual time trial of this week’s USA Pro Challenge to the final day in Denver on Sunday.

Shawn Hunter, the chief executive of the seven-day race, cited a more contemporary example: this year’s Giro d’Italia, where Ryder Hesjedal erased a 31-second deficit in a time trial on the final day in Milan. Hesjedal won the stage by 47 seconds and the overall race by 16.

In last year’s inaugural Pro Challenge, the overall winner, Levi Leipheimer, seized control of the race in the time trial on the fourth day, overtaking Tejay van Garderen on Vail Pass. That stage, the only original Coors Classic stage in last year’s Pro Challenge, was cut this year in favor of the final, flat time trial in Denver. Davis Phinney’s son Taylor will be among those favored to win it.

“Well, my son is one of the best time trialers in the world, so whether he would be in contention for general classification remains to be seen,” Davis Phinney, the 1988 Coors Classic winner and a 1984 Olympic bronze medalist, said recently. “But he’s for sure in contention for a stage win in Denver.”

Taylor Phinney, 22, is coming off two fourth-place finishes, in the road race and the individual time trial, at the London Olympics. He skipped last year’s Pro Challenge to compete in the Vuelta a España.

“I’m going into this race really wanting to get my friend and teammate Tejay van Garderen on the top step of the podium,” Phinney said of his BMC Racing teammate, who finished third in Colorado last year. “He worked really hard for me at the Olympics and this is a perfect way for me to help pay him back.

“Once we get to the last day, hopefully, I can do my best time trial and maybe win that stage.”

This year’s Pro Challenge starts Monday with a 125.6-mile road race from Durango to Telluride. The seven-stage race includes 42,000 vertical feet of climbing and 683 total miles, including the final 9.5-mile time trial. Hunter and organizers are hoping for a dramatic final day, when hundreds of thousands of fans are expected to line Denver’s downtown streets.

“I went to the Giro this year; that race went down to the final day,” Hunter said. “It was a time trial, and it went down to the last 10 minutes after a couple of thousand miles — very dramatic.”

For LeMond, the 1989 final-day time trial produced the second of his three Tour de France titles. He trailed Fignon, a two-time winner, by 50 seconds heading into the time trial but won it by nearly a minute. His eight-second victory remains the tightest winning margin in Tour history.

“Of course, the French were like, ‘All right, we learned our lesson, we’re never going to put a time trial on the last day again,’ ” Davis Phinney said. “But I think for American sensibilities, that’s not a bad thing.”

Leipheimer, 38, returns this year with a new team, Omega Pharma-Quick-Step. He said it would be difficult to retain his title, especially with the elimination of the Vail Pass time trial.

“It was very unique and just a fantastic time trial that set the race apart, in my opinion,” he said. “In general, the entire route is not very selective. It’s going to be very close — the time gaps in the end — and the level of competition will be very close and decided by seconds.”

Last year’s race drew an estimated one million spectators, but this week’s will be missing some top draws.

Bradley Wiggins, the Tour de France winner and Olympic time trial gold medalist, will not be racing. Neither will the brothers Andy and Frank Schleck, who were second and third in the 2011 Tour. Andy Schleck, the 2010 Tour winner, is recovering from a broken pelvis sustained in a crash in June. His brother was suspended by his team, RadioShack Nissan Trek, after a positive doping test at this year’s Tour.

But last year’s Tour champion, Cadel Evans, will join Taylor Phinney in supporting van Garderen, 24, who was the top American in this year’s Tour, where he finished fifth and won the white jersey as the best young rider. Also supporting van Garderen will be the longtime Lance Armstrong lieutenant George Hincapie, 39, who is retiring after this event.

Hincapie won last year’s second stage into Aspen, where van Garderen briefly claimed the overall lead. Leipheimer said the next day that he drew motivation from van Garderen’s comments about Leipheimer’s tentative descent of daunting Independence Pass. This year’s race will go over the 12,095-foot pass twice, on Wednesday and Thursday.

“Tejay, I would say, is certainly a clear favorite,” Davis Phinney said, “but I can predict, hopefully, that Taylor will be climbing much better than people expect to him to. That was what was really great about the whole Olympic buildup was that he trained harder than he ever had and he showed himself that he could be better than he expected he could, and especially at altitude.” Read more.

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