California: GC race begins on Gibraltar

Tuesday's stage 3 at the Tour of California will test the riders vying for the overall win — and it will demonstrate who is really on form.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

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SANTA CLARITA, California (VN) — For the GC contenders at the Amgen Tour of California, Tuesday’s stage 3 finishing climb atop the 7.4-mile, 8-percent-average Gibraltar Road above Santa Barbara is where the race ultimately begins.

The first two stages, though they have each included substantial climbs, have revealed very little about who is on form and who is merely hanging on. Undoubtedly, a great ride on the twisting summit finish of stage 3 will be any eventual winner’s first crucial step in a successful overall race. Expect some riders to explode dramatically, as the true overall contenders rise to the forefront of the race.

Rohan Dennis of BMC Racing, with a USA Pro Challenge title to his name in 2015 (not to mention a short-lived hour record, a Tour de France time trial stage win, and a victory at the Santos Tour Down Under), tops some pundits’ lists as the five-star favorite for overall victory — mostly based upon those outstanding time trialing chops. It’s a good bet he’ll do well in Folsom, but does he have the form to take on a 45-minute climb? His spring results don’t suggest he’s found his legs just yet — he skipped Paris-Nice due to illness and abandoned the Volta a Catalunya soon after. He rode to 21st at the Tour de Yorkshire in late April. Further complicating his ability to take the final yellow jersey could be team orders: BMC Racing management has stated they are racing for American Brent Bookwalter in California. The scenario is reminiscent of last year’s USA Pro Challenge, when the two teammates sometimes seemed to cooperate and sometimes battle their way to a one-two finish.

Fresh off a win at the Tour of the Gila, 24-year-old Lachlan Morton of Jelly Belly – Maxxis has his eyes set on a podium finish. An overall victory might be a tall order for him, but don’t discount his chances to put time into most everyone on the steep ascent of Gibraltar, as he did to take the first stage and the overall lead on the Mogollon climb at the Gila. His time trial skills aren’t nearly as robust as Dennis’s, so he’ll need to see substantial gains on stage 3 to hold on in the Folsom TT.

Can Giant – Alpecin rider Laurens Ten Dam channel the talent and drive that saw him finish ninth at the 2014 Tour de France and pull off a victory in California, a place he calls home (he’s currently based in Truckee, near Lake Tahoe and the finish of stage 5) these days? The Dutchman downplays his chances, saying he’s still building toward the Tour de France in July, where he’ll serve as a mentor for Warren Barguil. He hasn’t raced since April and the Volta a Catalunya, but wryly smiles when declaring this is the one race of the year when he gets to race a bit for himself. “A top 10 would be successful. A podium would be successful. And I’ll try for the win on Gibraltar,” he said with a smile.

A smattering of other riders shouldn’t be forgotten — Julian Alaphilippe of Etixx – Quick-Step, second overall last year to Peter Sagan and a supremely talented rider in general, as proven by his Ardennes classics results of the past two seasons; Sky’s Peter Kennaugh, a talented climber but someone who might struggle to keep pace with the best at the TT stage; and Peter Stetina of Trek – Segafredo, who is motivated to return to his best form in the U.S. after a serious crash at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco in 2015 resulted in several broken bones and marred the bulk of that season. He has said that with every day of racing he is feeling stronger, but his recovery from rock bottom continues on a steady upward trajectory.

That leads us to Cannondale’s Lawson Craddock, perhaps the man most likely to succeed given his motivation (to win on home soil), form (proven to be at a high level by his ninth-place finish in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, arguably the hardest race outside of the grand tours), and team (strong, motivated, experienced).

“I’ve been around this race for a while now — it’ll be my fifth year doing it,” said Craddock, who was third in 2014. “I’ve definitely got some good memories here: I was on the podium a couple of years ago. It’s just a race I really love to do well at and I’d like to keep it going this year as well.”

Those who’ve studied the road book know the race isn’t as simple as the two stages, Gibraltar and the time trial. There are dangers looming on other days — the coastal winds on stage 4, which also finishes with a tricky climb at Laguna Seca; the high altitude of stage 5 to South Lake Tahoe; and the saw-tooth profile of stage 7 in and around Santa Rosa on roads used in Levi’s Gran Fondo.

“Those two stages are probably the most deciding days — Gibraltar is such a hard climb, there’ll certainly be big splits by the top, and the time trial will be decisive,” Craddock said. “But if you look at each stage this year, you can’t let your guard down. From stage 2 to 7, every day is difficult. Every day we have to stay focused.”

At the 2015 Tour Down Under, Craddock crashed heavily after puncturing his front tire and then bounded into a drainage ditch with his front wheel collapsing, sending him catapulting over his handlebars. He suffered a broken wrist, rib, and sternum, injuries that kept him in the hospital for observation for three days, and saw him training at home for months thereafter.

He came out strong in 2016, finishing 16th at Paris-Nice and sixth at Critérium International. But the result that had people talking was his result in the Basque Country. At the time, Cannondale team manager Jonathan Vaughters had glowing remarks: “The significance of the ride he did — and it may be lost on people — is that if you can finish top 10 in the Tour of the Basque Country, then you can finish top 10 in a grand tour. It’s just tough. I wouldn’t say that about another week-long stage race.”

It might not be lost on Craddock, but the relaxed Texan has kept the result in perspective.

“It hasn’t changed me too much,” he said. “Obviously it was a good result and I’m really happy with it. It was just good to see everything come together. Last year was pretty rough, coming back from injury for the first half of the season. To be able to come into this season with a good base, with good training, it was just nice to show everyone else what I was capable of doing.”

But the race in Spain is now more than a month ago. A distant memory for most. The slate has been cleaned, a new field has been assembled in sunny (well, it’s been more gloomy and gray) California, and GC riders are notoriously wary of making predictions. The race is won on the road, they say. We’ll see how the legs are going, they quip. All true. But inside they’re all focused competitors. Who’s going to win?

“I love California. It’s kind of the race that put me on the radar of some of these WorldTour teams and helped me get a contract,” Craddock said. “Every year I love to come back, I love to come here and race to win. I’d be disappointed if I weren’t on the final podium.”

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