When you watch a sporting event of any kind, you want a bit of uncertainty to make things interesting, but not so much that you can’t comprehend anything that’s going on. So far, the Tour of California has been in that comfort zone where it has been very entertaining to watch.
There was a bit of luster taken away with Marcel Kittle and Andrew Talansky backing out at the last second(of course, after I’d written my preview). Still, there was plenty of intrigue left.
Stage 1 was as flat as it could possibly get. A small breakaway featuring two teammates from SmartStop got clear, but the group slowly got picked apart before hitting the downtown Sacramento circuit. There, Etixx-QuickStep took control of the finish of the race with such precision that it clearly showed the gap of their dominance against other teams as Mark Cavendish was delivered the victory.
The next day had a bit more interest as another four man breakaway took hold featuring potential spoilers Daniel Oss(BMC) and Robin Carpenter(Hincapie Racing). There seemed to be a bit of confusion about the time gap between the front and the peloton causing Etixx-QuickStep to put a lot of extra work to reel them back in to keep Cavendish in yellow. The result was another sprint that was a photo finish with Cavendish just edging out this year’s bridesmaid Peter Sagan(Tinkoff-Saxo).
Stage 3 featured the first opportunity to see some shuffling in the GC and boy did that happen. A larger breakaway group of seven formed early featuring Oss and little known Toms Skujins of Hincapie Racing. Oss took full KOM points on the first three climbs, but the 23 year old Skujins took the final Mt. Hamilton climb and decided to solo it the final 33 miles.
Skujins created a significant time gap, but did his best to bring the peloton back my comically crashing couple of times down the descent. Either the peloton didn’t take the youngster seriously or got bad time split information, but it was evident that the young Latvian was going to take the stage even as he was struggling the last kilometer.
The chase got a little disorganized near the end, but there was close finish for the next three spots with Sagan taking second. A small pack finished three seconds back including GC contenders Robert Gesink (Lotto), Sergio Montoya (Team Sky), Rob Britton (SmartStop), Peter Kennaugh (Sky), Phil Gaimon (Optum), Matthew Busche (Trek), Lawson Craddock (Giant-Alpecin) and Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale).
The Pismo to Avila Beach stage saw a five man break that mercifully got pulled apart as the group battled the winds. The end featured a number of bends causing a bit of organization in terms of setting up a sprint train. Daniel Oss(this guy came to race) tried taking advantage leaping in front at almost the right time, but got caught as the sprinters were left to their own devices. The cornering and uphill finish favored Sagan who clearly took victory, but was almost unprepared for a finish line celebration.
Yesterday’s stage which appeared on paper to be another prototypical sprint finish, had a few more pressures considering the rain and wind. Another breakaway group formed, but this one seemed stronger, including Danilo Wyss (BMC), Alex Howes (Cannondale) and Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly).
Again, Etixx-QuickStep did their work to reel the breakaway in, but Hincapie did their share along with some remaining members of the Tinkoff-Saxo team. Year after year, I love watching the gutsiness of some of the young teams, so seeing the young Hincapie squad put in work was encouraging.
In the end, Wyss tried a desperate attack at the end to hold off the peloton, but the finish featured an irregular off-timed Etixx-QuickStep sprint that caught everyone off guard, but that Cavendish won anyways.
As we hit the final three days of the race, we’ve perhaps left the best for last. At the moment, twenty four racers within 47 seconds of the lead, with many of them having legitimate yellow jersey hopes.
The big news from the Tour of California is the incoming storm moving today’s time trial from Big Bear down to Santa Clarita. It’s a bit of a bummer because some of the contenders put in big work studying this course, but thems the breaks. Seeing how the new course has been cut down from fifteen miles to six, the time separation between contenders will not vary greatly, but enough to shuffle the standings. I’m still picking local Phil Gaimon to be standing somewhere on the podium after this stgae.
After the time trial, the racers will have to strategize quickly for Saturday’s Mt. Baldy stage. The only thing predictable about Baldy is that it’ll be highly unpredictable. While the first climb is technically the longest, the peloton will have about 30 miles to bring back any breakaway.
The fireworks could start up the Glendora Mountain Road climb, where the time trial for the San Dimas Stage Race recently took place. It’s about eight miles of varied climbing where the riders will climb roughly 2,500 ft. If a lead group has formed, then the next section on the returning portion of Glendora Ridge Road features nine miles as rolling climbs until the descent into Mt. Baldy Village.
It doesn’t provide that much of a reprieve, as the final five miles will be the toughest. The beginning portion is the definition of a false flat, as your eyes become fixated further up the road. The upcoming switchbacks continue to deceit as you question the standards of engineering in this state. This will be a difficult portion to launch an attack, as you get punched by double digit grades for the next two miles.
There is a slight reprieve before the final ball buster where if the group isn’t already fragmented, that the finish becomes a will of attrition. You can look at all the contender’s names, but with all the different strategies in play for the last 25 miles, anything can truly happen. Most likely, whoever wears yellow after this stage will win the GC, although I’m holding out hope with the gain in time bonuses that Sagan could make it interesting on Sunday.
The final stage should play out similarly to the first, but the competition for the sprint jersey between Cavendish and Sagan will still be in the balance. Odds are the repetitive eight laps around the Rose Bowl will give Cavendish the ammo he needs to unseat Sagan’s annual winning streak in coming home green.
So that’s the way things should play out. Which they won’t. Which is the way they should.