ASPEN, Colorado - After nearly five hours in the saddle - most of it spent in the lead - Tom Danielson was bracing for the peloton to reel him in.
A voice in his head spurred the 34-year-old Boulder cyclist on, however, as he sped into downtown Aspen during Wednesday's third stage of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge.
"With two [kilometers] to go, I didn't think I was going to win," Danielson admitted. "Honestly, what went through my mind was my wife yelling at me, saying, 'Don't look back. Don't ever look back.' I wanted to look back so bad."
The Garmin-Sharp rider resisted the urge until the final straightaway when, about 200 meters from the finish line near Paepcke Park, he snuck a peek over his right shoulder.
As a raucous crowd rang bells and hammered on the white placards lining Main Street, Danielson mustered a wide grin.
He was king of the Queen Stage.
A lead that ballooned to as much as three minutes on a grueling 130.5-mile trek from Gunnison to Aspen had all but evaporated, but Danielson prevailed with a time of 5 hours, 2 minutes, 6 seconds. A group of 26, which included general-classification contenders Christian Vande Velde, Tejay van Garderen and 2011 Challenge champion Levi Leipheimer, was two seconds back.
The effort helped Danielson vault from 11th to sixth in the general-classification standings, while teammate Vande Velde snatched the yellow jersey from Stage 2 winner van Garderen.
Leipheimer is fourth, eight seconds off the pace.
"We came up with some crazy plans, and fortunately we had the legs," Danielson said. "I bet you nobody thought it would work."
Garmin-Sharp has been the aggressor early in this Challenge. The group did not hold back Wednesday, either, despite confronting the tour's longest stage, one that featured ascents of Cottonwood and Independence passes, which both top out at more than 12,000 feet.
David Zabriskie, who Monday exerted himself so much that he threw up, was back at it again Wednesday, cutting through formidable gusts in the Arkansas Valley near Buena Vista to assist Danielson.
"He buried himself for Tom," Vande Velde said. "You can't say enough about teammates like that who are so damn strong that they pretty much do the lion's share of the work."
Added Danielson, "[Zabriskie] pulled like a freight train for like 70 [kilometers]. I felt like we were going nowhere. It seemed like we had no hope in the world. ... Dave did what he does. He's the best time-trialist in the world but did a 70K time trial on Cottonwood Pass.
"The guy is a bad, bad man, and I'm really lucky he's on my team."
Zabriskie's efforts helped Danielson surge to the front and mount what proved to be a decisive breakaway. Colombia's Francisco Colorado and American Jeffry Louder joined the duo at the front.
By the time they reached the 12,126-foot summit of Cottonwood Pass, the leaders had amassed a two-minute cushion over van Garderen and the Team BMC-led peloton.
That advantage reached three minutes on the Category 1 climb up Independence Pass, about 33 miles from the finish.
Three miles later, Danielson and Colorado pulled away.
Soon, Danielson found himself all alone as he powered to the summit - save for some animated fans lining the narrow, two-lane road.
"I wanted to give everybody a high-five, but I had to go. I had to keep my hands on the handlebars," Danielson joked. "That was awesome. When you're going up a Tour de France climb, it's exciting and people are running next to you. When you go over a Colorado climb and you're a Colorado guy, yeah, it's a dream come true. I've dreamed about going over Independence Pass first, alone. For it to come true the way it did is something I'll never forget. ... It doesn't get any better than that.
"Honestly, that was my finish line. When I got across that, I was like, 'OK, I just have 35 kilometers to go. I'll deal with that as it comes.'"
As it turns out, he had to deal with much more than a treacherous descent. As he crested Independence Pass, Danielson's advantage was a robust two minutes. It was cut in half over the next 10 miles by van Garderen and a hard-charging chase group reached speeds in excess of 60 mph.
He was just 20 seconds ahead with about two miles remaining, but Danielson summoned the energy to hang on - and gain a measure of redemption after a disappointing Tour de France; he was forced to withdraw after separating his shoulder in a multi-rider crash.
"Everybody on the team put their hand in today, and we pulled it off," Danielson said. "It doesn't happen many times in your career, so it's pretty cool to have the team's hard work all come together and have a good result."
His combined time - 13:37:30 - is just 10 seconds behind Vande Velde and van Garderen, who are in a virtual tie heading into today's fourth stage, which heads back up Independence Pass, through Leadville and on to Beaver Creek.
"Nothing really has changed," Vande Velde said. "We have the same time. He's virtually in the race lead, too. But how will we approach the day tomorrow? I don't know. We'll have to talk about that."