Count Peter Sagan among the disciples of altitude training.
Sagan, the 23-year-old rising superstar of international cycling, won his first race in Colorado on Monday, sprinting to victory in the Aspen/Snowmass Circuit Race — Stage 1 of the 2013 USA Pro Challenge.
The national road-racing champion from Slovakia and a winner of four stages at the Tour de France, Sagan came to Aspen two weeks ago to prepare for the high-elevation test of the stage race across Colorado as well as the upcoming World Championships in Italy.
“I think this [altitude training] helped me,” Sagan said after winning a final sprint down Main Street to take Monday’s stage win. “It was maybe the key.”
Sagan, riding for the Cannondale team, had said earlier that he hoped training at elevation would help his race preparation.
Evidently it worked.
Sagan, in another case of exquisite timing, worked his way into position over the final few miles of the 60-mile, three-lap course that took riders from Aspen to Snowmass Village, across to McLain Flats and back into Aspen via Cemetery Lane, Power Plant Road and a jaunt through Aspen’s West End.
With less than a mile to go, Sagan and the peloton swallowed up the last remnants of a breakaway on Smuggler Street.
Sagan pulled up close to the leaders as the pack rounded Bleeker Street and headed to Mill Street and the turn back onto Main in front of the Hotel Jerome.
Sagan was in fourth position around the final corner at the Jerome.
Two hundred meters later, Sagan pushed his bike across the finish line to win the opening stage of the 2013 USA Pro Challenge.
He edged Belgium rider Greg Van Avermaet, of BMC, who finished second.
Young American Kiel Reijnen, the Boulder cyclist riding for United Healthcare, sprinted to a third-place finish and a place on the podium.
The victory was Sagan’s 15th in a record-setting season that included his second consecutive title in the points category at the Tour de France.
Sagan, who has won 10 stages of the Tour of California, picked up the 54th victory of his five-year professional career.
The former world junior mountain-bike champion celebrated, in characteristic fashion, with a wheelie in the finish area.
The outgoing Slovakian, ranked No. 2 in the world, wrapped up the post-race news conference by riding his bike through the Jerome Ballroom and back out to the staging area for his team near the Pitkin County Courthouse.
Sagan won more than the yellow jersey as the leader of the 2013 USA Pro Challenge. He also won the jersey as the sprint points leader and the jersey for the best young rider.
“Thank you for all my teammates,” Sagan said. “We are very happy when we take a victory for the team.”
He said the Aspen/Snowmass circuit course was a tough test but not as tough as today’s Stage 2 and its climbs over Independence Pass and Hoosier Pass.
“It was hard, but the climbing was not very long,” Sagan said of the 20-mile loop course. “I don’t think I will be on the front when the big climbs come.”
Sagan spent a week in Aspen training with support from the Osmo nutrition group. He spent another week at Snowmass Village training with the Cannondale team, including his brother, Juraj Sagan.
The other featured rider in Monday’s stage was Matt Cook, a Boulder resident riding for the Jamis-Hagens Berman team.
Cook was part of the early breakaway group of three riders that animated the first two-thirds of the race.
Cook joined Craig Lewis, of the Champion System team, and another American, Ian Burnett, of Durango and the Jelly Belly team.
Cook, Lewis and Burnett broke free less than six miles into the race.
They stayed away until the final miles, when Sagan and the peloton erased what had been a lead of 2 minutes, 30 seconds.
“We wanted as a team to have presentation in the breakaway,” Cook said. “It didn’t matter who it was.”
He said the trio worked together out front, with Cook setting his sights on the King of the Mountain jersey.
Cook won the King of the Mountain points and grabbed the KOM jersey heading to Independence Pass today.
“That last climb [up the W/J hill], my legs were hurting a little more than I thought they would,” said Cook, who landed with the Jamis team after his previous Exergy team folded midway through the season.
“Craig [Lewis) hit it on the last climb. He’s an animal,” he said of his fellow Boulder resident. “So I just followed him.”
Cook jumped Lewis at the top of the final climb and secured the final King of the Mountain points.
“After the last climb, everyone was pretty gassed,” said Reijnen, the only American on the first day’s podium at the USA Pro Challenge. “The last 3K were pretty dicey. I think everyone underestimated the altitude.”
He finished the 60-mile circuit race in 2 hours, 26 minutes.
Van Avermae and Reijnen finished second and third in the same time.
New Aspen resident Tejay van Garderen, riding for BMC, pulled into fifth place by race’s end. He also had the same time as Sagan.
Van Garderen, who won the Tour of California earlier this year, recently moved to Aspen, his wife’s hometown. He’s married to Jessica Phillips, a former pro cyclist and ski racer who grew up in Aspen.
Tommy Danielson, of Boulder, finished ninth Monday. He won the 2012 USA Pro Challenge stage that finished in downtown Aspen.
Chris Froome, the winner of the 2013 Tour de France, finished in the main peloton Monday in spite of being dropped on the final climb in the race. Froome rallied with help from his Sky teammates.
But, he said, the altitude had an impact on the race. Froome has been in Aspen only since Thursday.
More altitude will enter the picture today for Froome, Sagan and the rest of the 128-rider field.
They will start Stage 2 at 10:10 a.m. today in downtown Aspen. After a couple of warm-up laps around downtown Aspen, the cyclists will head up and over Independence Pass on the start of the 126-mile stage that ultimately will finish in downtown Breckenridge.