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MORGAN HILL, CA (CT) — Tejay van Garderen won the battle against the clock Wednesday in Morgan Hill, but Team Sky may yet win the war on the roads of California.
The American won stage 4 of the Amgen Tour of California, seven seconds ahead of his BMC Racing teammate Patrick Bevin, to take the race leader’s jersey. He last wore the California leader’s jersey in 2013, the last time he raced in California, when he won the overall.
Van Garderen returned after a four-year absence intent on winning, and though that objective appeared to be in doubt when he finished eighth atop Gibraltar Road on stage 2, he exacted revenge in Morgan Hill, just south of San Jose, putting his stamp on the general classification.
He now leads former race leader Egan Bernal (Team Sky), the winner atop Gibraltar, by 23 seconds. Daniel Martinez of EF Education First-Drapac sits third, at 37 seconds, while Bernal’s teammate, Tao Geoghegan Hart, is fourth, at 52 seconds.
“I didn’t expect it to go quite this well, but I kind of had it in the back of my mind on Gibraltar if I could keep it to within a minute, I could maybe take it today,” van Garderen said. “Today was going to be my big power play, and I’m glad I was able to produce one. It feels great.”
Two sprint stages and one mountainous day remain, and it’s there, in South Lake Tahoe on Friday, where van Garderen and Team Sky will face a day of reckoning.
The 196km stage 6 delivers 4,000 metres of elevation gain over seven categorized climbs, and finishes at over 2,000 metres above sea level. And perhaps most importantly, the final climb, up and over the 12km climb of Kingsbury Grade to Daggett Summit, tops out just 10km from the finish line. From there it’s a fast and furious descent into South Lake Tahoe, before a 1.7km rise to the line.
It’s a day that has a breakaway winner written all over it, but it’s also a day that will see the GC reshuffle, and will determine the overall winner of the 2018 Amgen Tour.
Bernal took 50 seconds out of van Garderen on the 12km climb of Gibraltar Road, plus another 10 seconds of time bonus. He needs just half that to reclaim the leader’s jersey. If a breakaway succeeds, he won’t have the time bonus to fall back on, but he has another ace up his sleeve — Geoghegan Hart.
The young British rider decimated the lead group on Gibraltar Road and still managed to finish 12th, 1:10 down. His time trial ride in Morgan Hill showed just how fit he truly is, and at just 52 seconds down, it’s not a question of if, but rather when, Team Sky sends him up the road on Stage 6.
So while van Garderen won Wednesday and now wears the race leader’s jersey, it’s less clear who has the advantage, BMC or Team Sky. (Martinez sits in a strong podium position, but it’s very hard to imagine when Bernal, a 21-year-old Colombian, would take his eye of Martinez, a 22-year-old Colombian climber. The EF Education First-Drapac rider will find it very difficult to get away and take time.)
Because BMC has the race lead, they’ll have already spent stage 5 and most of stage 6 riding at the front by the time Geoghegan Hart attacks, and the close friendship that both Bernal and Geoghegan Hart have acknowledged between them confirms that either man will be happy to see the other win the race.
“Tao was really impressive,” Bernal said atop Gibraltar. “He’s my friend, but also he is so strong. I think we all saw the work that he did in the climb. Everyone was full-gas because he was so strong. I’m happy because he did a good job. He also arrived in 12th position. He can be one of the best riders in the future.”
Geoghegan Hart had similar words of praise for Bernal after the Gibraltar climb.
“It’s a really good feeling to deliver for someone like Egan because he’s such a good leader,” he said. “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.”
Van Garderen holds the lead against them both, and on his best days, he can climb at a world-class level. But he didn’t climb at his best on Gibraltar, and he will almost certainly be outnumbered by the time he reaches the base of Kingsbury Grade on Friday.
“I think Tahoe is going to be a big test in terms of the strength of the team, but I think we have one of, if not the, strongest teams here,” van Garderen said. “The altitude might play a factor, but I’ve lived in Colorado and I was born in Montana, so I’m no scrub when it comes to altitude. I think I should be able to handle that. For sure, there are going to be loads of attacks from everyone who wants to take the jersey but as far as motivation goes, I am probably the most motivated guy to keep it.”
Van Garderen said his plan is straightforward enough — follow wheels, and hope the breakaway gobbles up bonus time at the line.
“At least I am ahead of any time bonuses so as long as I stick to the wheels I should be safe in that regard,” van Garderen said. “But saying that, I have to stick to the wheels and Egan Bernal has shown that he is going uphill really well. I don’t think the climb is as hard as stage 2, so it might be easier to follow, but I am definitely going to do everything possible in terms of preparation because he is not going to let me ride into Sacramento with the jersey. He is going to put up a fight.”
He certainly will, as will his British teammate.
“I think we’re going to have to put it all on the line to win this race with Egan and that’s my priority,” said Geoghegan Hart, after his career-best ride on stage 2. “It was my priority coming here and Egan and I have been talking about that since Volta Catalunya. That remains the big goal — to arrive in Sacramento with him in the yellow jersey.”