Clarity, questions for Amgen Tour GC after Bakersfield time trial

The cast of characters vying for the Amgen Tour of California overall changed Thursday, and a new story waits to be written

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

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BAKERSFIELD, California (VN) — The Amgen Tour of California wasn’t going to be won in Thursday’s time trial. But it may have been lost.

Defending champion Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan) found himself buried in rubble when the dust had settled after the 29.7km time trial in Bakersfield — BMC Racing’s Tejay van Garderen passed him early on and Horner ended up 2:50 off the winning pace of Garmin-Barracuda’s Dave Zabriskie. In the general classification, Horner now sits 2:50 back as well.

The race didn’t end Thursday, and won’t on Friday either, but the time gaps exposed in the time trial revealed the general classification contenders. After four days of broken-record results — Sagan wins, again — the overall standings saw a shakedown.

The very likely candidates to win this race now include van Garderen, Robert Gesink (Rabobank), Peter Velits (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), and Andrew Talansky and Tom Danielson (Garmin). The time trial is behind them and each can climb, and that’s all the Amgen Tour has left, aside from a sprinter-friendly drag race into Los Angeles.

What about Horner? Who knows. Everyone in the peloton knows he can climb, and everyone also knows he was waiting for Saturday’s haul up Mount Baldy to win the race. He told VeloNews earlier this week that the race’s final climb, where he secured his 2011 title, was the only place he had to make a winning difference.

Horner knew he’d lose time in the time trial, but this can’t have been what he had in mind. His gap is 2:50 to the Zabriskie, but the real time differences worth minding are those to van Garderen (2:16), Gesink (2:11), Talansky (2:02), Velits (2:01), and Danielson (1:43).

“I wasn’t surprised when I was caught by van Garderen but I was surprised that he caught me so soon,” Horner said Thursday. “I was expecting 50 seconds, maybe a minute. I wasn’t too concerned about Zabriskie’s time because I figured on Mount Baldy I could make that time up. I knew he would pull some time out of me but I didn’t think it would be so much.”

Expect Horner to go on the attack — maybe a day earlier than he’d thought, but the low-angle, grinding run-in on the Big Bear Lake finish may prohibit that. He can win the Baldy stage, but by how much?

One day short of a year after blowing up on Sierra Road under the pressure of Horner’s pace, van Garderen fortified his place as a favorite to win with his blistering effort Thursday. He finished third on the stage, behind Zabriskie and Jens Voigt (RadioShack) and sits at 34 seconds out of the lead. That’s real time to Zabriskie, sure, but it’s time that should come down in the coming two days.

Garmin tactics at Big Bear Lake

Friday’s Big Bear Lake stage could see a group of 20 or so riders finish in the front. If van Garderen is there and Zabriskie isn’t, BMC Racing could find itself in control of the race Saturday morning for the assault on Baldy. Each of the squad’s five remaining riders (in addition to van Garderen) are wholly dedicated to the American, which sets the team apart from Garmin, a team with three riders in the top 10 on GC, but a full, eight-man roster.

That is a big “if,” however. Zabriskie finished eighth when the Amgen Tour went to Big Bear Lake in 2010, in a group of 21 riders. (Yes, that stage was won by Peter Sagan.) And Garmin has proven to be amongst the strongest teams — and certainly the most willing to animate the GC battle — in this race, asserting itself on the front of the field at will. How the team rides in the next two days will be fascinating.

Does it protect and support the yellow jersey of Zabriskie on the climbs as long as it can, or will Garmin go to the front of the bunch and drill the pace on Friday and Saturday, in hopes of launching Talansky or Danielson? It’s worth noting that after two hard days earlier this week, a sleek Danielson appeared fresh as a daisy at the finish, eager for the climbs to commence.

“It was a beautiful stage… great scenery,” Danielson told VeloNews after Wednesday’s six-climb scorcher to Clovis. “I’m not playing mind games with anyone… I just really enjoy my job.”

But rest assured BMC Racing will be fired up at the front, trying to tear the jersey from Zabriskie’s back. And with George Hincapie and Brent Bookwalter each carrying the yellow armbands indicating Tour de France-winning palmarès, the team has the pedigree.

“I’m feeling pretty comfortable on the climbs,” van Garderen told VeloNews Thursday. “The guys I need to watch more carefully are Robert Gesink and Peter Velits. Hopefully they’ll keep more of a steady tempo and if I can hold their wheel, then I can win the race.”

The new contenders

While it was a surprise to see Horner slip on the GC, it was almost equally surprising to see two men emerge Thursday as contenders.

Gesink’s time trial, good enough for fourth overall, was brilliant. The Rabobank rider, coming off a broken femur last fall, is a marvel in the mountains and his team will be fresh — it’s been a quiet race for the Dutch squad thus far, with some late work for sprinter Michael Matthews and a pair of attacks from Bram Tankink and Wilco Kelderman on Wednesday. It could soon be very loud.

“It’s a good sign; so far so good,” Gesink said after the time trial. “I’m feeling good, so we’ll see how it goes the next few days… I’ll sit a bit and relax and see how it will be [Friday]. I don’t think tomorrow will be the big day. I think Baldy will be the big day.”

Gesink, as van Garderen said Thursday, will be “hard to control” on Baldy. He’s just 39 seconds out of yellow and five seconds in arrears of van Garderen.

Velits’ time trial and solid form should allow him to emerge from Levi Leipheimer’s very tall shadow in California, and contend for the overall. Only in California could a grand tour runner-up (Vuelta a España, 2010) find himself in the shadows for half of the race.

Velits sits at 49 seconds behind Zabriskie and he climbs much better than the American. His Omega Pharma team hasn’t had the race it hoped for, as Leipheimer has said he isn’t here to contend and Tom Boonen, the king of the spring classics, has been beaten by Sagan in sprint finishes.

Velits is unencumbered now, and Leipheimer recently said he’d work to help his teammate on Baldy. It was there in 2011 that Leipheimer rode away with Horner to win the stage and land his then-teammate atop the final podium.

“I don’t really want to think about [the overall],” Velits said Thursday. “I am simply trying my best and if and when I have the legs I will go for it.”

What a story it would be for the Slovaks if Velits were to finish off what countryman Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) began with his four back-to-back stage wins.

But then, a breakthrough win for a young American like Talansky or van Garderen, or a come-from-behind triumph for Horner would make for strong headlines as well.

Yes, the characters in the bike race changed on Thursday, but the narrative remains the same. It’s still Baldy or bust.

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