What happened? How Manuel Senni won the 2017 Colorado Classic

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DENVER, CO (CT) — There were no TV pictures. Time gaps were unclear. It was not expected to be a stage where anyone would be able to ride away with the overall victory.

Yet that’s exactly what BMC Racing’s Manuel Senni did on Stage 3 of the inaugural Colorado Classic Saturday on a large out-and-back loop, starting and finishing in Denver.

The 25-year-old Italian rider set himself up for the first stage-race win of his career by attacking on Golden Gate Canyon, the second of two categorized climbs, 47km from the finish line, bringing Romanian Serghei Tvetcov (Jelly Belly-Maxxis) with him.

The two riders, sitting fifth and sixth on GC — 32 and 51 seconds down, respectively — rode a two-man time trial together to the finish, crossing the line 54 seconds ahead of a 22-rider chase group.

Thunderstorms kept the race’s repeater plane on the ground, impacting both TV pictures and, for a spell, radio tour. At the finish line, mud-soaked riders, fans, and media alike collectively asked — what just happened?

The out-and-back stage, which climbed to Peak to Peak Highway at an altitude of over 9,000 feet elevation (nearly 3,000 metres) offered two categorized climbs — Gap Road, on the way up, and Golden Gate Canyon, which was part of the descent down to Golden and into Denver.

TJ Eisenhart (Holowesko-Citadel) started the day in the race lead, one second ahead of Stage 2 winner Alex Howes (Cannondale-Drapac), with Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo) third, 11 seconds back.

On Twin Spruce Road, the early slopes of the first categorized climb, Stetina attacked, forming an early move that also included Tvetcov, who was gunning for KOM points, as well as Jonny Clarke (UnitedHealthcare), Marco Canola (Nippo Vini Fantini), and Valerio Conti (UAE Emirates). As their gap grew over 20 seconds, Stetina became the virtual race leader.

Senni attacked from the chase group, and bridged across to the five leaders, meaning third, fifth, and sixth overall were up the road on Peak to Peak Highway. Behind, Rigoberto Uran and Hugh Carthy drove the chase for their Cannondale-Drapac teammate, bringing it back together. Over the top, a 24-rider group formed, and it looked as though the group would descend together into Denver.

That wasn’t Senni’s plan, however.

On the final kilometer of the final climb, the Italian — who is leaving BMC for Bardiani-CSF next year — attacked, opening 25 seconds over the group in one uphill kilometer. Tvetcov, who lives in Golden and knows the descent well, followed.

With Uran and Carthy (Cannondale-Drapac) driving the chase alongside Stetina and Julien Bernard (Trek-Segafredo), the pair extended their lead on the descent. The two riders ahead were motivated — not only did they not have podium positions to lose, each had something to gain — for Tvetcov, a stage win, and for Senni, the overall victory.

Howes would be the biggest loser on the day. The Colorado native had dearly wanted to win on home soil; on the way back to Denver he finished third on the second intermediate sprint and took one second that came with it, and, had the group come back together, would have taken the GC lead from Eisenhart depending on how time bonuses were divvied up at the line.

Assuming riders like Travis McCabe (UnitedHealthcare), Marco Canola (Nippo Vini Fantini) and Kiel Reijnen (Trek-Segafredo) would contest the sprint from the lead group, it was likely that neither Howes nor Eisenhart would take any time bonuses at the finish, meaning the GC lead would go to Howes based on stage placings.

Instead, Howes finished the stage 55 seconds down, plus bonus time taken by Tvetcov and Senni, and would end the race disappointed with third overall.

McCabe crossed the line 54 seconds back to win the bunch sprint, ahead of Canola and Reijnen.

After the stage, the muddy, tired racers were asked what, exactly, had happened.

The leaders must’ve had a draft from a race vehicle, one rider suggested.

Our time gaps had to have been wrong, another suggested.

A tailwind neutralized the chase, Senni’s teammate Brent Bookwalter said. Later, on Twitter, he would add, “Those guys were pulling like a bunch of skinny climbers and nursing through the wet corners.”

Race director Jim Birrell of Medalist Sports said that while there were no TV pictures, there was still a chief commissaire monitoring the breakaway from the lead vehicle, and while there was a short blackout in radio tour, there was still a race moto with a chalkboard providing regular time gaps to the breakaway and chase group.

Howes was in no mood after the stage to talk at all. Cannondale-Drapac director Ken Vanmarcke said there had been a “black hole” of 10 to 15 minutes without a time gap update; during that time, the pair’s lead stretched from 15 seconds to over a minute.

Uran and Reijnen also flatted during the chase, though both riders had quick wheel changes. Though it certainly didn’t help, those mechanicals had hardly been the difference, as the gap was well over a minute by then.

Ultimately, the race had been upended, in a way no one had predicted.

CyclingTips spoke with Tvetcov and Senni, as well as five riders from the 22-man chase group, to find out what really happened.

Serghei Tvetcov (Jelly Belly-Maxxis), Stage 3 winner, second overall: “When I uploaded to Strava, it looks like we were faster on the descent. I know that descent pretty well, I train pretty much every day there. It was wet, and I knew that anything more than a small group, three or four people, it was going to be kind of sketchy. It went perfectly. And the bottom of the descent we had 1:15 and then we had a tailwind. We worked well together. My size was better for speed on the downhill, but Manuel was descending very well.”

Manuel Senni (BMC Racing), second on Stage 3, first overall: “I found a rider who is very strong on the flats. We were two strong riders on the descent, especially in the rain, with the wet, and on the last 30km flat. We probably finished the climb with a lot of energy. We pulled hard until the final. I was looking at my SRM, we were always at high power — when I was at the front I was at 400 watts or more. For the group, when two riders go so fast, I think it’s hard to stay motivated. Also, we had the tailwind, and some corners, which helped us. I think sometimes riders think to just defend their GC positions. But even when I’m in good GC position, I like to attack. It’s in my DNA. I’m like this. On the climb I saw Serge in a bit of difficulty, but I waited for him on the descent because I know that he is strong and he could help me a lot. On the flat he was fantastic. He helped me a lot. I gave everything to the finish, and when they told me I was the new GC leader, I was really happy.”

Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo): 17th on Stage 3, fifth overall: “Once I was caught we started thinking about the sprint for Kiel, which was the plan. On that little riser, Senni and Tvetcov ripped off, and we didn’t worry too much. Kudos to them, I’m not really sure how that was happening up front, because we had six guys team time-trialing to bring it back. It sounds like the race got away from us. I was going for the GC today, and then we set up Kiel once I got caught. That was the plan. It wasn’t for lack of trying, those guys up front, I mean… two guys went faster than six. I don’t really know what UAE were thinking, I don’t know why they come all the way to the USA, put four guys in the front group, just to sit in and race for third place, but that’s what they did. And then UnitedHealthcare had [Travis] McCabe there, who was motivated for today, and he had a teammate [Jonny Clarke] who refused to ride, even when McCabe was yelling at him to. I don’t know what was going on there. So there was some politics going on, but there was a unified effort from Trek-Segafredo, plus Cannondale. Nippo threw a guy up there, among others… I mean, were they drafting a motorcycle up front? We kept even on the downhill, but afterwards it never came down.”

Travis McCabe (UnitedHealthcare), third on Stage 3: “It wasn’t our job to chase. It was a really hard day, and it ended up being a GC day. Once they got out to 1:15 and we were holding it, we knew we weren’t really bringing it back. They went up over the KOM and I think Trek and Cannondale just took them for granted. They don’t think two guys are really going to go, but it’s only 50km and it’s all downhill. I talked to [teammate] Jonny Clarke [about chasing], and then I talked to [team director Sebastian Alexandre]. My radio wasn’t really working, so I couldn’t really hear much. In the end it’s not really my decision, it’s the director’s. It is what it is, it’s not our job to bring back the race. Yeah, I had a good chance at winning, but when you have two GC riders up the road, and we only have one rider left in the chase group [Clarke], unfortunately that’s how it plays out. Say Clarke goes to the front, and it comes back, all of a sudden I’m left by myself, and you don’t know how it’s going to play out. It’s frustrating, but it’s bike racing. You can’t really control it. It plays out the way it plays out. I’m happy to have the sprint leader’s jersey, that’s a big plus.”

The peloton raced through rain, and down dirt roads, on the out-and-back loop that started and finished in Denver.

Kiel Reijnen (Trek-Segafredo), fifth on Stage 3: “Pete [Stetina] gave his all to try and mix up the GC. I think it was a good move, it put everyone under pressure to chase, and I could sit. And I had the legs to sit. Halfway through everything looked good. Cannondale stayed calm, so good on them. When they caught Pete we were all in with them. Those two guys went off on that second KOM. We knew they’d take a bit time on the downhill, but with Cannondale and us chasing, we didn’t think it would be an issue. But the gap just didn’t come down. We fully committed, we really thought we had a chance today. When it didn’t come back I was definitely bummed. It wasn’t for a lack of trying. I’m blown away they held off. Cycling is a strange sport that way. I definitely give them the benefit of the doubt, but…. Wow. I was definitely surprised.”

Alex Howes (Cannondale-Drapac): seventh on Stage 3, third overall: “I don’t really know what happened. I don’t know if we were getting bad information, or what. When we went over the top of the climb, they were right there. We didn’t do a bad descent. They were still pretty close at the bottom, and then all of a sudden they were gone. We had six or seven guys chopping off, full gas, spun out in the 53-11. It just walked away from us. I don’t know. It’s frustrating. It’s hard. It sucks — hometown race, feeling good, great form. The boys rode great. I can’t fault the team at all. Hugh [Carthy] rode amazing, Taylor [Phinney], Lawson [Craddock], Will [Clarke]. I’ve got Rigo [Uran] coming off the Tour de France podium going out there and setting a heart-rate PR for the season, pulling for me. That’s pretty special. It’s a shame it didn’t work out.”

Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing), sixth on Stage 3, seventh overall: “Just from racing with Senni over the years and doing training camps with him, he likes the wet technical downhills. I was back there feeling good about it, and pretty psyched for him. We got a little lucky with the tailwind at the end. Two strong, motivated guys and a tailwind, hard to bring back. They attacked on the last kilometer of the last categorized climb. I think everyone looked at them like there was not enough time left to do any damage. They had maybe 30 seconds over the top, and on the downhill they just opened it up. [Senni] was disappointed with himself after Stage 2, he felt like he was really good. [Stage 2] was a special race, it was really just about having a good one or two minutes right at the key point. I missed that, he missed that. So he was really motivated today to make good on that. He said he wanted to try, and we all looked at him like he was crazy at the beginning of the stage. Looking at the profile we didn’t think there was going to be many places to make that separation. It just goes to show you never give up.”

The GC podium of the 2017 Colorado Classic, from left: Serghei Tvetcov (Jelly Belly-Maxxis), Manuel Senni (BMC Racing), and Alex Howes (Cannondale Drapac).

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