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by Michael Better
May 16, 2016
Photography by Cor Vos
The riders of the 11th edition of the Amgen Tour of California set out from San Diego under overcast skies, but when the bunch sprinted back into town to end stage 1 it was all rainbows. World champion Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) used a late surge on the headwind finishing straight to bring his record haul of stage wins in the race to 14 and further stake his claim as “Mr. California.”
Wouter Wippert (Cannondale) thought for a second he may be pulling on the leader’s yellow jersey, but was left throwing a hand in the air in disbelief as Sagan passed him inside the final 10 metres. Dylan Groenewegen (Lotto-JumboNL) rounded out the podium.
The pure sprinting titans of the race, Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), were nowhere near the pointy-end of the finish. The former was ultimately boxed in when the sprint began, while Kristoff’s performance was more glaring after his team spent most of the day setting tempo on the front of the peloton.
A peloton of 144 riders rolled casually out of San Diego for the 175-kilometre opening stage and with a startlist full of top-name sprinters the odds seemed stacked heavily against a breakaway surviving.
Despite this, attacks began as soon as the peloton left the neutral section and before too long a group of five was let go of the peloton’s grasp.
Daniel Patten (Team Wiggins), Daniel Eaton (UnitedHealthCare), Jacob Rathe (Jelly Belly), Joonas Henttala (Novo Nordisk) and Danny Pate (Rally) were soon joined by Michael Sheehan (Jelly Belly) and Oscar Clark (Holowesko-Citadel) as the gap ballooned.
The breakaway’s lead peaked around 40km into the race at nearly six and a half minutes, as they entered Imperial Beach for the first intermediate sprint of the day, won by Sheehan. Back in the peloton it was all red at the front as Team Katusha took up the chase in favor of Kristoff.
On the lone KOM of the day, up Honey Springs Road, Katusha continued to whittle away at the breakaway’s lead with little to no help from other teams. Clark won the sprint atop the KOM over Rathe and Pate and assured himself a trip to the podium at the finish.
Katusha led the peloton over the KOM and the gap had dropped to four and a quarter minutes. Kristoff looked comfortable up front among his teammates, as reports came through that Cavendish had slipped off the back.
Cavendish returned to the peloton on the tough rollers before the peloton began the descent back to the coast.
The second intermediate sprint with less than 35 kilometres to go saw again Sheehan take top honours, while Dimension Data and Etixx-QuickStep, the latter looking to set up Tom Boonen, each sent riders to the front to aid Katusha in the chase with the gap dipping back under two minutes.
While it was all business at the front of the peloton, Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing) and Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly-Maxxis) were sharing a laugh at the back. The former is the last American to win a stage at the race, which came in 2014 into Santa Barbara.
Rathe attacked on a short incline as the riders hit the outer city limits of San Diego and only Patten and Clark were able to make the junction. By this point the gap had fallen to a minute as more teams began moving to the front.
Inside the last 10 kilometres Katusha had disappeared completely from the front of the peloton as Tinkoff, Team Sky and BMC Racing all came to the fore looking to set up their sprinters. The leading trio soon became two after a Clark acceleration got rid of Patten, but with Rathe unable to pull through it was only a matter of time before it was game over.
With three kilometres to go, Clark and Rathe were reeled in as LottoNL-Jumbo took over the front of the peloton. After two quick left turns, the peloton was in the finishing straight, but Kristoff was nowhere to be seen and the world champion was isolated.
Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie) opened the sprint early, but with a strong headwind he never stood a chance. The world champion surfed the wheels to perfection and used a quick final burst of speed to pass the two Dutchman, Wippert and Groenewegen.
The world champion and defending race champion could continue his winning ways on Monday as the race travels 148km from South Pasadena to Santa Clarita. The stage features over 3,400 metres of climbing, but the final climb tops out over 30 kilometres from the finish.
The stage should see the general classification riders stretch their legs, but expect a reduced bunch sprint in Santa Clarita.