“Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country” – Horace Greeley
Read The Jersey Pocket Tour of California preview here.
On the surface of things there is a lot that it could be easy to be disparaging about in the Tour of California. The irony-laden fact that the race is sponsored by the makers of EPO has been covered many times before, for example. There is also the abundance of long straight highways used, the awful stop-motion quality of the on-board camera feed and the somewhat presumptuous assertion that the eight day 2.HC category race is the ‘fourth Grand Tour’. But on the other hand, you have one of the most professionally run races in the calendar, the sublimeness of Pacific Highway 1, the very best online coverage I have ever seen and a strong rider line-up that a number of ‘bigger’ races would love to able to attract. Add in the fact that the favourable time difference means that the majority of live racing is on in the evening for British audiences and you have all the ingredients for an accessible, engaging and enthralling race.
Those of us who chose to follow the sun-baked Californian race more closely than the damp Giro stages last week were amply rewarded. We had British winners on 3 stages; we had young riders showing their elders that the next generation is coming through strong and sure; we had old hands still chancing their arms and we had star turns taking deserved bows as they crossed the line after epic efforts.
The first thing we had to contend with was how to watch the race. I’ve been tweeting the praises of the Amgen Tour Tracker (web and app) most of this week for it’s excellent information and relative lack of adverts, but as so often in life you had to take the rough with the smooth. In this case that meant opting for the Phil & Paul (or more accurately in this case Paul & Phil) commentary over the much more engaging and informative pairing of Matt Stephens and Brian Smith over on Eurosport. Over the week Stephens and Smith re-animated the often staid arena of cycling commentary offering the kind of relevant and up-to-date insight that is so often missing these days. I often ended up watching the Tour Tracker video for the sidebar info that came with it, whilst playing the Eurosport audio through another device.
Stage 1 kicked things off nicely: A Mark Cavendish stage win and young British prospect Tao Geoghagen-Hart’s top four on GC – thanks to bonifications earned throughout a long breakaway – made things look quite rosy in the bright Californian sun. Tao also secured the best Young Rider jersey for his efforts and made a significant mark in his first big race for his new Bissell Development team. Later in the week we saw videos of Tao talking about the new wireless (hell, yeah!) shifting system which they are testing for SRAM. This lad has a big future in cycling, writing and/or presenting. Take note. Cav’s win over John Degenkolb was very close and neither knew who had taken it. Phones were produced, Tour Trackers were checked and a beautifully clear finish line photo was seen by the racers in around 20 seconds. We did get a little tired of still images as the week progressed with the live pictures often freezing due to transmission problems but that one was a peach.
Another young name that came to our attention this week was Lawson Craddock. Riding on Degenkolb’s Giant Shimano team, the 22 year old was hugely consistent throughout the week and rode impressively in the Stage 2 Time Trial to take the Young Rider jersey from Tao with a 13th place overall finish, beating more notable names such as Sagan, Ten Dam, Van Avermaet and Terpstra. It was enough for the youngster to hold onto that jersey and strong finishes later in the week would elevate him to 3rd place on GC by the end of the race. The real star of the Time Trial though was Wiggins who went around the Folsom Circuit at a blistering pace to beat closest finisher New Zealander Rohan Dennis by 44seconds. Taylor Phinney was expected to do better than 3rd at 52seconds back and, though Wiggins took the Yellow Jersey from Cavendish, the young American stole the social media limelight by turning to give a single red rose to podium girl Allison Steinkamp as he departed the podium.
Stage 3 brought the first mountain test and Garmin-Sharp’s Dennis looked to threaten Wiggins on the final climb up Mount Diablo. In a very un Sky-like fashion, it was Sir Brad himself who led the reducing peloton up the slope from the bottom. Despite having no teammates to count on, he looked the personification of assuredness and calm as he smoothly pedalled at high cadence with the air of someone leading out a Sunday club run. Dennis jumped away in the final kilometre to claw back 20 of the seconds he had lost to Wiggins in the Time Trial and, in doing so, made the next few days of racing far more interesting.
The run down Pacific Highway 1 from Monterey to Cambria on Stage 4 was a real treat for the eyes with the rugged coastline providing the most awe-inspiring backdrop. It certainly inspired the five man breakaway who held off the charging peloton just long enough to contest the stage win themselves. Comprised entirely of second tier teams and with a couple of skinny young lads often on the front, it reminded me of last year’s Specialized ad where the young boy is being pursued by Tom Boonen. Tornado Tom was indeed at the head of the chase but even his thunderous thighs couldn’t catch the plucky escapees. Will Routley of Optum took the win.
We were treated to an even greater escape on Stage 5 when Taylor Phinney – perhaps anxious to get back onto the podium to meet Miss Steinkamp again – drove off the front after the last climb of the day and plunged down and along the last 12km to Santa Barbara alone. He TT’d out a gap of 35 seconds by the finish and had time to literally take a bow as he crossed the line. It was a mighty effort and an impressive way for the US to record their only win of the week.
Stage 6 was the second (and last) big mountain finish. The aptly named hors category Mountain High was the destination and Garmin and others were looking to end Sir Brad’s time in yellow. Dennis couldn’t make an attack though and it was left to Tom Danielson to bridge up to the breakaway after earlier attacks from Ben King and George Bennett had shaken things up a bit. This time though Wiggins had a teammate with him and Joe Dombrowski put in a mammoth shift bringing his leader up the final ramps. The stage was won by OGE’s Columbian climber Chaves but Wiggins managed to come home in 5th alongside fellow Brit Adam Yates, who had ignited a splintering of the chasers in the final yards. The small split gained the race leader a couple more precious seconds and the race was nearly in the bag.
Peter Sagan won the sprint after a lumpy Stage 7 into Pasadena had put Cavendish 6’21” behind by the end. Thor Hushovd looked to have been on for the win but Sagan popped out from a hidden viewpoint and shot past the Norwegian champion to rescue an otherwise mediocre week. Danny Van Poppel of Trek Factory racing continued his good week with a 3rd place beating Degenkolb, who had made it to the sprint intact. All that remained then was for a repeat of the Stage 1 showdown on the final stage with Cav and Degenkolb again going head to head. There were worries about Cavendish who had lost his lead-out man Renshaw in the lead-up and who later said he wasn’t feeling too good at the stage start but he produced a great final burst to win by a clearer margin than before. No phones were needed this time. There was some disappointment on the last stage with Tao Geoghagen-Hart crashing hard and coming in 14 minutes down but greater concern was for Belkin’s Moreno Hofland who also crashed breaking a vertebra and ribs. He will be in hospital for a week before he can fly home.
Brad’s podium smile said everything that was needed about winning a race that was high on his and his team’s agenda. He says that his next race will now be the Tour de France and that he is fully committed to supporting Chris Froome. Indeed, his leading of the peloton up Mount Diablo earlier in the week almost looked to be specific training for leading Froome up some of the Alpine climbs in France in July. The Tour of California came of age this year with it’s status much elevated by this edition. It also won great respect for being a race where youngsters are being given a chance and are really grasping it. It was hugely refreshing to see. We tip our ten gallon cycling caps to y’all and, like many top riders, I suspect we will be back for more next year.