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The pain starts early at this year’s Amgen Tour of California.
On the race’s second stage, the peloton will battle up Gibraltar Road, perhaps the most arduous climb in the state’s southern half. On paper the ascent does not boast otherworldly statistics. The Strava segment is 6.1 miles in length with 3,473 feet of climbing and an average gradient of eight percent. Mt. Baldy — which served as the crux of last year’s race — is both longer and steeper.
Yet Gibraltar boasts a few painful elements that boost its overall difficulty. The approach to the climb includes narrow, twisting roads that create a nervous attitude within the peloton. Strong teams drive the pace to keep their GC men out of danger, while other racers battle for position into the base of the climb.
The climb itself gets steeper as it reaches the summit. Save for a short downhill section 2km from the top, Gibraltar has multiple ramps above 10 percent.
And then there’s the sun.
“There’s no shade. It’s always wide open, and every year it’s boiling,” says Toms Skujins of Trek-Segafredo. “It’s never easy because you’re in the sun for the whole thing.”
In 2016, Skujins powered the peloton into the base of Gibraltar road in an effort to set up his Cannondale-Drapac team leaders Andrew Talansky and Lawson Craddock. After Skujins peeled off, the two Cannondale rides then took charge of the peloton, chasing hard after youngster Neilson Powless.
The ensuing action produced some of the most dramatic action in the Tour of California’s 12-year history. Jelly Belly’s Lachlan Morton attacked up to Powless with Trek’s Peter Stetina, who eventually dropped his breakaway companions just two kilometers from the finish line. Stetina appeared to have the victory at hand — a win would have marked a poignant milestone in his comeback from the 2015 crash that nearly ended his career. Yet in the waning meters, a surging Julian Alaphilippe attacked from the diminished peloton, caught Stetina, and powered to victory.
The gap that Alaphilippe opened on Gibraltar in 2016 — that year it was part of the third stage — proved to be decisive in the battle for the overall.
Stetina has bittersweet memories of that day on Gibraltar.
“I went under the red kite and had 10 seconds and still had power in the legs, and I even started to think about a victory salute,” he said. “I turned around and [Alaphilippe] was right there. I thought I could catch my breath for a few seconds and then he hit me one more time and the tables flipped.”
Stetina has not ridden Gibraltar since that day in 2016 — he has watched the video replay of the stage a few times. The climb itself, he said, is no more challenging than other large ascents. Yet the race-day situation and crowd ambiance on the climb are what sets it apart.
“It’s already a massive climb that gets harder as you go. And then there is the sensory overload with all of the people and the Pacific ocean in the background,” he said. “You feel like you’re doing something iconic which adds to the spectacle. It’s not just some climb through the forest.”
So what’s the trick to taming Gibraltar? This year’s climb will see changes to its approach, as the recent mudslides in Montecito have forced the Tour of California to abandon the traditional approach to the climb along highway 192. Instead, the new route will head into downtown Montecito, before heading uphill.
For domestiques like Skujins, the job is fairly straightforward: Ramp up the pace into the base of the climb and then hold on.
“It’s a fairly steady climb so you do the effort you can for 30 minutes and race from the gun and shoot for a number on your power meter,” Skujins said.
For Stetina, the job will be more complex. The opening pitch should advance the peloton’s best climbers to the fore. Those riders who have an uphill sprint will likely stay with the group, similar to what Alaphilippe did in 2016.
Those climbers who lack a finishing punch may attempt to escape early, perhaps in the opening few kilometers of the climb.
So which tactic will Stetina employ? Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s keeping that information to himself.
“I know I can perform on it,” he said. “I’d love to do something there.”