USA Pro Cycling Challenge: Tom Danielson charges, Tejay Van Garderen takes the lead

The Queen Stage, which racers battled yesterday from Gunnison to Aspen, was defined by two punishing climbs over Cottonwood and Independence passes. Yet, it was a rainy, white-knuckle inducing descent from Independence Pass that defined the day, and possibly the entire race. American George Hincapie won the stage and vaulted into second place. Fellow American Tejay Van Garderen took the overall lead and Boulder resident Tom Danielson launched from ninth place to third. Click through to watch highlights.

The Queen Stage was a grueling 131 miles and nearly 10,000 feet in elevation gain. Racers topped two 12,000 feet peaks and rode on a dirt road heading up Cottonwood Pass. The stage featured the race's first crash, three King of the Mountain and two sprint competitions. But the stage came down to who showed the most testicular fortitude in racing down Independence Pass and into downtown Aspen at more than fifty miles per hour.

"There is no big summit finish or big day that is really going to separate a lot of time, so you have to take time wherever you can," Van Garderen said in a statement. "Levi (Leipheimer), with all do respect, isn't the strongest descender -- he loses his nerve a little bit. I'm a bit stronger. When I saw we had a gap I just drove it."

Van Garderen has a sixteen second lead on Hincapie and is 22 seconds ahead of Danielson. After winning Stage One and taking the overall lead, Levi Leipheimer fell back into fourth place and is 34 seconds off the lead. Christian Vande Velde caps off an all American top five.

Today's Time Trial in Vail, which is almost an exact replication of the course from the Coors Classic, could be a decisive moment in the race. It is a steady, ten mile climb of 1,783 feet. The next three road race stages, which will take the riders from Avon to Denver, where the race ends on Sunday, don't feature any massive climbs on which riders will be able to make up big chunks of time. If any of the cyclists finish today with a big lead, it will be hard for competitors to overcome.

"I think tomorrow's Time Trial will be very important and most likely I think the guy who takes the lead tomorrow can probably hold onto it," Hincapie said.

Here are the promised highlights:

More from our Things to Do archive: "Lance Armstrong helps people remember Bill Ritter's still governor at bike race announcement."

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