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SANTA BARBARA, CA (CT) — It was a sight familiar to cycling fans: Team Sky, amassed at the front of the peloton at the bottom of a climb, setting a blistering pace, shedding riders off the back before launching their GC leader to victory.
Only this wasn’t the Tour de France, and it wasn’t Geraint Thomas and Wout Poels setting a hard tempo for Chris Froome.
Instead, it was the next generation of pro cycling’s big stars replicating the tactic in Santa Barbara, California, with Sebastian Henao, 24, and Tao Geoghegan Hart, 23, pacing Egan Bernal, 21, to a solo victory atop Gibraltar Road.
Different riders. Different roads. Same tactic. Same result.
Bernal, the Colombian phenom who has taken the sport by storm in 2018 before and after breaking his collarbone and shoulder in March, continued his winning ways on the Gibraltar climb, attacking from 2.5km to the finish after Geoghegan Hart had shredded the group down to less than a dozen men.
After a few looks over his shoulder, Bernal put his head down and rode clear, winning the stage by 21 seconds over Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), a two-time KOM winner at the Tour de France, and 25 seconds over Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), fourth overall at the 2016 Tour.
Bernal has never ridden a Grand Tour — this is his first season on a WorldTour team after two years with Italian Pro Continental team Androni Giocattoli.
And though he has won a WorldTour stage race (Colombia Oro y Paz) and a WorldTour time trial (at Tour de Romandie), the victory atop Gibraltar was Bernal’s first WorldTour win taken on the road, arms posted up as he crossed the line.
It most certainly won’t be his last.
“I’m so happy, because the team did a really good job,” Bernal said. “They did it out of confidence during the stage. In the final part of the stage they were so strong. Tao and Sebastian did a good job. They just attacked it, and everyone was full gas. I arrived alone, but it was for the team.”
And it truly was a team effort. Prior to the climb, Ian Stannard had taken to the front of the peloton to reel in the daylong breakaway of Adam De Vos (Rally Cycling), Ruben Companioni (Holowesko-Citadel) and Jonny Clarke (UnitedHealthcare). After nearly 25km on the front, Stannard swung off and teammates Lukasz Wisniowski and Luke Rowe took over.
“Lukasz took over on the run in to the climb, as we came to the base of the climb, Luke dropped me off in a good position before BMC Racing started to put a hard pace, which worked for us, too,” Bernal said.
Pavel Sivakov led on the early section of the 12km climb before Henao took his turn, setting a pace that saw riders like Lachlan Morton (Dimension Data) and Neilson Powless (LottoNL-Jumbo) pop off the back. Henao swung off at 5km to go, and then Geoghegan Hart began dismantling the group. There was really only one attack from that group, and it was the winning move from Bernal.
Former California winner Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), who had briefly tried to follow Bernal’s move, finished eighth, at 50 seconds.
Team Sky’s approach to stage racing has drawn its share of detractors — the big-budget British squad massing together on the climbs, stifling the competition by riding a tempo so hard that it simply neutralizes attacks. The team has won the Tour de France five times in the past six years, with two different riders, in large part by exerting its dominance in the mountains. Whether or not cycling fans like to see it, there’s no arguing that it’s effective.
Now in the leader’s jersey, Bernal, the Colombian time trial champion, will face his next major GC challenge on Wednesday in a flat 34km time trial outside of San Jose. Van Garderen is probably the strongest TT rider in the top 10, but he’s got a significant time gap to overcome; Majka does not ride as well against the clock as Van Garderen, but the Bora rider has a much smaller deficit to Bernal.
“The time trial will be long,” he said, when asked if his advantage was enough to carry the leader’s jersey all the way to Sacramento. “I can lose this time in the TT. I’m not sure. I’m happy because I won today. [On Stage 3] we will try to keep the jersey, and then well see for the TT, but I’m not sure yet.”
And while Bernal’s performance was the ride of the day, Geoghegan Hart earned accolades for singlehandedly whittling down the front group in the middle part of the climb; his pull saw names like Ian Boswell (Katusha-Alpecin), Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing), T.J. Eisenhart (Holowesko-Citadel), and Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo) all lose contact.
“No excuses,” Boswell said. “Those guys went really fast. I couldn’t hang.”
Despite his efforts, Geoghegan Hart finished the stage 12th, 1:10 down. A good time trial could well see him finish in the top 10 for the second year in a row riding as a domestique; last year he finished eighth riding in support of Boswell at Team Sky.
“I prepared. I trained my ass off. I got the lightest I’ve been in a few years,” Geoghegan Hart said. “It’s a really good feeling to deliver for someone like Egan because he’s such a good leader. I only actually spoke with him a few times last year, when we were racing against each other, but he’s a really, really good friend as well now, so it’s an absolute pleasure.”
Asked to describe the feeling of riding at the front for his team leader on a summit finish at a WorldTour race, knowing he was shredding the group behind him, Geoghegan Hart described it as “freedom.”
“It’s a really free and beautiful experience, actually,” he said. “It’s liberating — when you’re good. You don’t care so much about who’s peeling off, and who’s being dropped, because you never know who’s on their last legs and who’s feeling great. I think it’s just a freedom, and it feels even better when you know you’re doing what you’re meant to do, or more. Maybe when you’re suffering, it’s different. But when you feel really good, and you have a leader like him, you can go really deep.”
Geoghegan Hart had a breakthrough ride in a support role, but Bernal was unquestionably the star of the show. He’s taking a cautious approach to his Grand Tour debut, though it’s quite possible he’ll start the Vuelta a España in August.
And after that? Given his trajectory, one can only imagine.
Rob Britton (Rally Cycling), a strong climber who recently won the Tour of Gila for the second time, finished 17th on the stage, 2:25 down. He could only marvel at the pace Team Sky set — and the manner in which Bernal finished it off.
“I think Bernal is probably Sky’s new weapon of choice,” Britton said. “Every race he does he keeps getting better and better. He pretty much finished second overall at Catalunya before he decked it, and at Romandie, he was first in the uphill TT. He’s phenomenal. I think he’s just an all-around handy bike racer. He’s not boring to watch. He’s aggressive. He gets up there. Even on the bunch kicks, he doesn’t just sit at the back. He mixes it up. He’s going to be someone to watch for the future. If Sky ever wants to win the Giro, I think they found their guy.”
Video: Highlights from Stage 2 of the 2018 Amgen Tour of California