Steamboat Springs It took 3 minutes and 32 seconds of work for Chris Sheppard to earn the yellow jersey in the first stage of the Mercury Tour, but the Canadian knows holding the lead could be a full-time job.
"I'm going to be trying to keep this thing on my back," Sheppard said of the yellow leader's jersey. "But I know it is going to be a challenge."
Sheppard won the first stage of the Mercury Tour, the Prologue time trial, on Tuesday night by posting the fastest time on the twisty, dirt single track at the base of Mount Werner. Sheppard set a blazing time on a course that cut through waist-high native grass and passed underneath the Headwall and Preview lifts. He will take a 9-second advantage into the first official stage, the Continental Divide Cross Country race, which starts at 9 a.m. today at the top of Buffalo Pass near Forest Service Access Road 301.
"Winning the Prologue really boosts my confidence," Sheppard said. "So now I can go home happy."
Sheppard held off American rider Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, who placed second at 3:41, and Frank Maple, who was third at 4:42.
"There are a handful of riders, including Jeremy, who will be pushing me in the next stage," Sheppard said. "This stage doesn't mean that much. The real challenge will be holding onto the lead the next couple of days."
There are several top riders including Russian Pavel Tcherkassov, and American riders Steve Larson and Carl Swenson who are less than 17 seconds off the pace, well within striking range.
"The Prologue really doesn't mean a lot," second-place finisher, Horgan-Kobelski said. "The real test will come in the next few days as the leaders begin to pull away from the field. I'm happy with my finish, now I just have to keep racing with the top riders."
There are sure to be some changes following the completion of today's race a cross country that will span more than 30 miles of single-track including some of the toughest dirt and rock terrain in the area. From the top of Buffalo Pass, the 33.2-mile course descends 4,000 feet to the finish line in front of the gondola building at the base of the Steamboat Ski Area.
"This is the first time I've raced here in Steamboat, so I'm not really sure what to expect. I think the key is staying consistent. I don't want to go out and use everything I've got in one stage. I have to make sure I hold something back, so that I'm still riding fast on Sunday."
Alla Epifanova topped the women's Prologue race at Mount Werner on Wednesday.
The Russian rider, who now lives in the United States, recorded the fastest time of the day at 4:13. Susan Haywood was second at 4:17 and Rachel Lloyd was third at 4:18. Less than 8 seconds separate the top four riders in the event and only 15 seconds stand between the top 10 women in the event.
Steamboat's Katherine Zambrana is in her second year as a pro at the Mercury Tour. She has raced in the event at one level or another all four years the races have been held here. She was 20th on Wednesday, 23 seconds off the pace at 4:36.
"The field is very competitive this year, probably because of the Olympics," Katherine Zambrana said. "I pushed myself today, but I really prefer the longer races."
Zambrana's brother, Ben, is one of three pro riders from Steamboat Springs in the men's race. Ben Zambrana was 13th in the men's field with a time of 3:52 in the opening stage, 20 seconds behind the leader. Fellow locals J.R. Thompson is in 42nd place at 4:09 and Jamie Morgan is 45th at 4:13, 41 seconds off of the pace.
"It was a good race and it set the table for the races on Thursday," Ben Zambrana said. "My goal is just to have fun and do my best against the top riders in the country."