Steamboat surprise: BMC’s Phinney wins stunning Stage 1 | SteamboatToday.com

Steamboat surprise: BMC’s Phinney wins stunning Stage 1

Taylor Phinney throws his arms up in celebration as he crosses the finish line in Steamboat Springs

— Boulder cyclist Taylor Phinney couldn't even watch the USA Pro Challenge a year ago, let alone race in it. Then just three months removed from a nasty crash that left him with a broken leg, he was far from healed both physically and mentally.

He was a new man Monday, however, surging from an exhausted, exasperated peloton to win Stage 1 of the 2015 USA Pro Challenge in Steamboat Springs, throwing up his arms and screaming as he crossed the finish line, soaking in the raucous joy of thousands of fans packed into downtown.

"I can't remember the last time I genuinely screamed in excitement," Phinney said afterward. "I was blown away crossing the finish line."

The Steamboat stage was supposed to end with a sprint, the hills too small to matter and the terrain too easy to ride. That same logic also dictated Phinney, just two weeks back from that injury, didn't have much of a chance.

But, the world was turned upside Monday as riders struggled with a trio of short but nasty hills — mightier together, it turns out, than they seemed to be apart.

Breakaway riders caused late headaches for the peloton, which itself was gradually shrinking over those climbs. A vicious and gutsy attack from BMC Racing's Rohan Dennis put on even more pressure over the final 10 miles, forcing a desperate attempt to reel him back from one of the few teams still equipped to win a sprint finish, UnitedHealthCare, working for Kiel Reijnen.

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That effort bled UHC white.

"Those climbs are one right after the other, and in the end, that's what exploded the race," said Reijnen, who ended up second on the day, just ahead of BMC's Brent Bookwalter. "There were a lot of tired bodies."

Dennis held them off as long as possible, even as he dove into downtown, but when UHC finally caught its prey, it was too late. It had nothing left with which to win the stage.

Phinney rocketed from the pack, flew by Dennis just 200 yards short of the finish line and crossed it alone — a revitalized, rejuvenated Colorado hero, saluted deafeningly by a mob of fans that had been waiting all day downtown for just such dramatics.

"That was really special and really emotional," Phinney said, "just that electrical moment we all live for."

A party downtown

"Electric" defined the day downtown for many.

Steamboat Springs woke up to closed roads and backed-up traffic as fans migrated downtown for the race's late-morning start.

Thousands flocked to line Lincoln, pounding on barriers alongside the street as law enforcement and race support vehicles tore down the road ahead of the peloton.

An announcer boomed play-by-play action up and down the street — the energy and his voice building to a fever pitch as the riders roared down the final hill into downtown.

"This weekend and today were the biggest crowds I've ever seen in the history of the Pro Challenge for opening day," race CEO Shawn Hunter said. "Kudos to the Steamboat community."

Waiting so long

For Phinney, the win capped an incredible comeback, in the race and in life.

He struggled in those hills Monday, even dropping briefly from the main pack on the third of the back-to-back-to-back climbs that defined the race far more than most expected.

He caught up near Oak Creek, however, then hung with the lead group as it charged toward Steamboat chasing Dennis.

His comeback was bigger than one day, too.

He fractured his leg in several places 15 months ago in a race in Tennessee and was so distraught he had to check out of the sport, taking up hobbies such as flying and painting, to save his sanity.

When the 2014 USA Pro Challenge brought his BMC teammates to his home state of Colorado, it felt like torture.

"I wanted to see everyone, but limping around, (I thought) 'This doesn't make me feel good,'" He said. "So, I left."

This year’s race offered the ultimate juxtaposition.

A year ago he hid from the USA Pro Challenge.

Monday, he starred in it.

“I had 15 months to think about putting my hands up again,” he said. “It’s everything I thought it would be.”

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JReich9