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On stage 4 of the Amgen Tour of California, the chaos of the race’s final 10 minutes was rivalled only by the confusion in the team parking lot afterwards.
When the proverbial dust settled in Morro Bay, Tejay van Garderen (EF Education First) was still in the race lead. That was despite crashing in the finale, remounting on a teammate’s bike only to overshoot a turn and go off course, getting stuck behind another pile-up in the bunch, and then crossing the line over 50 seconds behind stage winner Fabio Jakobsen (Deceuninck-Quick-Step).
Nonetheless, commissaires ultimately decided that the late pile-up that impeded van Garderen happened close enough to the three-kilometres-to-go mark that all riders affected would receive the same time.
“I’ve got to applaud their decision,” a surprised van Garderen said following the stage. “Sometimes the cards fall your way, sometimes they don’t.”
The California peloton took its time to traverse 212 scenic kilometres in stage 4, riding well behind the time schedule all afternoon, but an unassuming day went sideways for van Garderen with around nine kilometres left to race just as the pack was catching the remnants of the early break.
“There was a lot of swarming, people were making position, and there was a touch of wheels,” van Garderen said after the stage. “I hit the front brake to try not to cross over the wheel and I just kind of endo-ed. I can’t say it was anyone’s fault. We ride pretty close and sometimes things happen.”
Although sporting a few bumps and bruises, van Garderen was quick to take a bike from teammate Lachlan Morton, and then began his chase with the help of a few EF teammates. A kilometre and a half later, van Garderen’s stage went from bad to worse as he missed a turn, appearing to lose control as his teammates hooked right to continue following the stage route.
As van Garderen explained later, the brakes on Morton’s bike – as is common for Australian riders – were configured opposite to van Garderen’s setup.
“Normally you’re used to the left-hand brake and the right-hand brake and it was the opposite on his bike,” van Garderen said. “When I hit the rear brake the front wheel started sliding and I just kind of panicked. Things that you don’t think would make that big of a difference … but man, my wheel started sliding and I couldn’t make the turn.”
With the help of his EF teammates, van Garderen nonetheless managed to close most of the gap before reaching a collection of crashed riders at the back of the pack. Ineos’s Gianni Moscon, second overall, was among those caught up in the pile-up, which appeared to have occurred with a little over three kilometres still to race. Van Garderen and co. weaved through riders and bikes to continue their push to the front, but there was no catching the sprinters at the head of the reduced peloton.
With van Garderen crossing the line so far back, stage 2 winner Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), who started the day in third overall, was initially declared the new race leader. Van Garderen arrived at the finish with a scraped leg and a bruised shoulder after his crash, and climbed straight onto his team bus to see the team doctor.
As a handful of media members gathered outside, initial word of a potential decision from the commissaires began to trickle in. EF staff was told that van Garderen would in fact keep yellow. Then came word that that update was incorrect. Then came the final word: After deliberating, commissaires had decided to award those riders involved in or slowed down by the latter crash the same time as the leaders.
“The mass crash near the finish of stage 4 was just outside 3km to go,” read the official statement after the stage. “The commissaires have decided to treat the crash such that all riders affected by the incident and the road blockage will receive field time.”
“When they told me I was back in yellow, I was surprised,” van Garderen said. “I understand, because we were chasing back and I think we would have gotten back had that other crash not impeded us.”
It took a dedicated chase effort, a lengthy deliberation from the commissaires, and no small amount of luck, but van Garderen’s lead was safe for at least another day, assuming the decision stands. At least one team – Astana – has filed an official protest with the race jury.
“The team performed very well today and did a good job in today’s finale,” said sports director Dmitriy Fofonov via the team’s website. “Davide Ballerini sprinted to another top 10 finish and they managed to finish in the first group without losing time in the overall classification.
“This is why we don’t accept the decision by the jury to give everyone the same time because of the crash, that clearly happened outside the final three kilometres. The UCI rules are clear about this situation, and we need to respect these rules. Our riders worked hard at the front of the bunch for this result.”
Wednesday’s fourth stage would not be the first time the Tour of California GC has been amended by race commissaires following a crash outside the final three kilometres of a stage. Back in the 2007 Tour of California, prologue winner Levi Leipheimer was caught in a pile-up roughly 10 kilometres from the stage 1 finish in Santa Rosa. He rolled across the line around a minute down on the stage winner, but was ultimately given the same time in the general classification standings following a decision from the race jury.
The 2019 Amgen Tour of California continues Thursday with a stage 5 from Pismo Beach to Ventura that is expected to be another day for the stage-hunters, with a looming GC battle awaiting on Mount Baldy on Friday.