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As he did one year ago, Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep) stormed to victory on the queen stage of the Amgen Tour of California today, this time atop the feared Gibraltar Road climb.
“I’m really really happy,” Alaphilippe said after the stage. “It’s my first victory of the season and today was a … a little bit of some stress in the peloton because everybody knows and everybody [waits for] the last climb for the big fight.
“Cannondale did a job today with the control and for me personally the goal of my team was to be in the really good position for the last climb at the beginning.
“I was really in the first position. Thank you to my team for keeping eyes on me all the day and I was really surprised to [be in] good position in the last 2ks and I can also make a good effort to take the victory, so I’m really happy.”
US domestic racing sensation Neilson Powless (Axeon Hagens Berman) kicked things off on the hors categorie Gibraltar Road by opening up a gap with nearly 10 kilometres still to race. The 19-year-old would open up a maximum advantage of 30 seconds before being joined in the lead by Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly) and Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo) with just less than 4 kilometres remaining in the stage.
As the chasing group splintered all over the climb, Alaphilippe put in an impressive burst of speed under the red kite in a desperate attempt to catch Stetina who had set off alone. Alaphilippe would catch and pass the Trek-Segafredo rider, riding hard all the way to the line in an attempt to gain as much time as possible with the critical Folsom individual time trial later in the week.
Stetina crossed the line second, 25 seconds behind, a remarkable result considering his horrific crash into a bollard at Vuelta al Pais Vasco 13 months ago.
“I knew that I needed some time on the TT specialists, heading into the rest of race,” Stetina said. “The kind of climber I am, I didn’t want to wait for a big explosion, and I knew it got harder after 5km to go. I knew Lachlan was in the same boat, and when he went, it seemed like the right time. Unfortunately I came up about 700 metres too short, and I kind of ran out of gas. But I felt I had to race that way to try to set myself up for victory, and for the rest of the week.”
Powless continued his terrific season, finishing the stage in fifth. He now sits 40 seconds behind Alaphilippe in the general classification. “I had a lot of confidence coming into the race, after winning Joe Martin and racing well at the Tour of the Gila, at altitude, I think that definitely set me up for this race,” Powless said after the stage. “I had confidence, but I’ve never raced at this level. I’ve just been taking it day by day, to see how my legs would hold up.”
Perennial time trial specialist Rohan Dennis (BMC) finished the stage in eighth and sits 58 seconds behind Alaphilippe in the general classification.
How It Played out
After two overcast days sunny skies finally greeted the riders at the start of stage 3 and as the peloton rode out of Thousand Oaks all eyes were on the finish, the hors categorie climb of Gibraltar Road. To get to the finish though, the riders would have to conquer the queen stage of this year’s Amgen Tour. At 167.5 kilometres and over 2,600 metres of climbing, it was not a stage for the faint of heart.
The daily breakaway consisted of Evan Huffman (Rally), second overall and King of the Mountains leader, Andrew Tennant (Team Wiggins), Tanner Putt (UnitedHealthCare), Gregory Daniel and Krists Neilands (Axeon Hangens Berman), Oscar Clark (Holowesko-Citadel) and Julian Arredondo (Trek-Segafredo).
Arredondo was the danger man having won a stage and the King of the Mountains jersey at the Giro d’Italia in 2014.
With Clark claiming KOM points on stage 1, the battle for the polka dot jersey was expected to be heated between he and Huffman.
Huffman and Clark split the first two climbs and as the breakaway descended to the coast their gap swelled to over three minutes with Cannondale controlling the front for race leader Ben King and GC hopeful Lawson Craddock.
With 74 kilometres to race the breakaway held a four-and-a-quarter minute advantage, but the peloton had the gap very much in check with a headwind buffeting the riders as they traversed the coastline.
Turning inland the breakaway tackled another KOM and Huffman again took maximum points, but he had not yet secured the jersey for another day. The results of the final climb could end up seeing him lose the jersey.
A crash in the peloton briefly disrupted the chase with Peter Kennaugh (Team Sky) and Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie) each hitting the pavement hard. The former came to the race as a favorite, but abandoned the race on the spot, clutching his left shoulder.
On the lower slopes of the finishing climb only Putt and Daniel were left out front, as Arredondo, Huffman, Clark, Tennant, and Neilands had been dropped on a few tough uncategorized hills on the way to the climb.
Cannondale, who had done much of the pacemaking throughout the day, brought the peloton on to the climb less than a minute behind the now solo leader, as Daniel had set off alone.
The race was altogether as Danilo Wyss (BMC Racing) took up the pacemaking and yellow jersey King was popped off the back.
Wyss, followed by Powless, took a slightly-too-big pull, dropping the peloton. The Swiss road race champion opted to wait, while Powless set off alone.
Powless looked cool and collected as the kilometres ticked by, keeping the pedals turning over smoothly and hardly getting out of the saddle. The young-gun extended his advantage to 30 seconds at one point while first Phil Gaimon (Cannondale) and then Andrew Talansky (Cannondale) whittled down the peloton to the elite climbers of the race.
When Morton and Stetina bridged inside the final four kilometres, cracks had begun to show in Powless’ armor.
Stetina set off alone with just over 2 kilometres remaining, while a select group had formed of Talansky, Craddock, the BMC Racing trio of Brent Bookwalter, Sammy Sanchez and Dennis, Alaphilippe, George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo), and Laurens Ten Dam (Giant-Alpecin).
The chase group splintered in the final kilometers, before Alaphilippe made his incredible acceleration in the final kilometre to stamp his authority on this year’s Amgen Tour.
Bennett crossed the line third at 25 seconds, followed by Bookwalter two seconds later. Craddock, who finished third overall in 2014 suffered in the final kilometres and finished over a minute down on the Frenchman.
After the stage Alaphilippe was still hesitant about his chances to claim the overall despite losing out by just three seconds last year. But the Frenchman vowed to not go down without a fight.
“Yeah I’m always always motivated so motivation is not a problem,” Alaphilippe said. “It’s just this year is a little bit different because last year I was really really on good shape for the general classification, but after Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the classic season I did a little break for recovery and I’m here and it’s my first race after a good break for the second part of the season so it’s different.
“I’m not prepared for the general classification, but I don’t know; we never know. I do my best everyday and it’s a long TT, 20ks, so it’s not my specialty … But we will see.”
Amgen Tour of California (2.HC) Thousand Oaks → Santa Barbara County
BMC Racing Team