Garmin's Christian Vande Velde prepares for the fight. Photo: Rcrhee/Flickr.
They may not be fully in the pole position going into the sixth of seven stages in the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, but Team Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda has shown that it is prepared to drive. Over the past week, Jonathan Vaughters' argyle underdogs have not only dictated the tempo and terms of almost every stage of its home state's tour, but it has picked off three of five wins and simultaneously slid all-arounder Christian Vande Velde into a dead heat on the overall. And with the race's penultimate stage finishing in their home town of Boulder, Colorado, the team is extra motivated. "Every race we do is important," Vaughters told me on the eve of Stage 6. "It's just more fun in front of a home crowd."
Garmin has had its share of fun this week. From the gun in Durango, the team telegraphed its intentions when it put four riders into a powerful 22-man break that wasn't subdued until team members Tom Danielson and Peter Stetina were caught in the closing kilometers—and the team still managed to pick off the win with sprinter Tyler Farrar. Stage 2 was a near repeat of the first day, this time with Dave Zabriskie and Alex Howes in the break, and though BMC's Tejay Van Garderen nabbed the win, Garmin's Christian Vande Velde finished on the same time for a statistical second place. Danielson squeaked out a thrilling victory in Aspen on Stage 3, and Farrar doubled up with a sprint win on Stage 5.
It's impressive that the team has controlled the race so well. That they have done it with such a broad cast of characters is truly imposing. "We have very deep talent, but we don't have the money to afford a Tejay or a Levi," Vaughters said. "So we find a way to be competitive within our budget. It's an all-for-one-and-one-for-all attitude."
Garmin will need every bit of its firepower on the Boulder stage, which takes in over 7,000 feet of climbing before finishing on the sharp, 3.5-mile grunt up Flagstaff Mountain. It's a climb that suits Danielson and Vande Velde as well as it does their chief competition, Levi Leipheimer and Van Garderen, which means the team will go into the day both quietly optimistic and steeled for a fight. "We are still the underdog, and Teejay and Levi are the favorites. But we've raced very intelligently," Vaughters said cautiously. "If intelligence wins over strength, we have a chance." Our interpretation: Garmin is likely to be on the warpath early and often.
From its inception in 2007 as a clean-cycling dark horse to its first Grand Tour win at the Giro in May, Garmin has slowly parlayed its underdog status into formidable strength. And though the team has duly proven itself, there's a sense that, like a grown-up child coming home, the process won't be complete until it makes good on its promise on its own turf. For five days Garmin has laid the groundwork. Now can they deliver the final blow?