Tour of California: EF hunting elusive GC prize after years of close calls

After years of near misses, is this the year that EF Education First finally wins the Amgen Tour of California?

Photo: Getty Images

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SACRAMENTO, California (VN) — It’s no secret: America’s WorldTour team has never won America’s WorldTour race.

Team EF Education First and its precursor organization, Slipstream Sports, has come oh so close to winning the Amgen Tour of California on multiple occasions throughout the race’s 13 editions. No matter the team’s name—Garmin, Chipotle, or Cannondale—it has come up agonizingly short in the battle for California’s top prize.

David Millar finished second in 2008; David Zabriskie then scored a hat trick of runner-up placings (2009, 2010, 2012). During the 2014 edition, Rohan Dennis fell just 30 seconds shy of winner Bradley Wiggins, giving the team another second-place result. And then, in 2017, Andrew Talansky finished third after a battle with George Bennett.

“I think the team has been on the podium as many times as this race has been in existence,” Tejay van Garderen said during Tuesday’s press conference. “You don’t do that without racing aggressively.”

Team officials want that losing streak to end in 2019, and have built, on paper, the strongest GC team at this year’s race. Van Garderen leads an all-star cast that includes Rigoberto Uran, Alex Howes, Lawson Craddock, Sergio Higuita, Lachlan Morton and Taylor Phinney.

“We’re obviously very ambitious and we want to do a good GC ride,” said Charly Wegelius, the team’s sport director. “I think we have a really nice team here.”

Indeed, the strong lineup has already paid off. After two stages, EF finds itself in its best ever position to win the overall. Van Garderen bolted into the race lead during Monday’s climbing stage to Heavenly Resort in South Lake Tahoe. He attacked multiple times on the mountainous course and in the hilly run-in to the finish, just missing the stage win in the final meters.

Van Garderen now holds the yellow jersey with a six second advantage on Gianni Moscon (Team Ineos). More importantly, the peloton’s other top climbers sit further in arrears. George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma) is at 36 seconds, while Max Schachman and Felix Grosschartner (Bora-Hansgrohe) are at 22 and 25 seconds, respectively.

“Now that we have the jersey we might be stuck in more of a defensive role,” van Garderen said. “But even then we still have cards to play and if other teams decide to be aggressive.”

Van Garderen was hardly the only EF rider to attack on Monday. His aggression in the final kilometers came after EF riders asserted themselves throughout the 233km race. At the race’s midpoint, EF amassed its team on the front on the final climb to Kirkwood Summit, the first big summit of the stage. All six riders tapped out a blistering tempo that shed Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and the other sprinters from the group.

Lachlan Morton then attacked over the summit and embarked on a short solo move. He was eventually reeled back by a counterattack that contained Craddock and Higuita. All three men were in perfect position to work for van Garderen when he eventually bridged across on the Luther Pass climb.

Craddock, who has raced with the team since 2016, said the aggressive racing style and all-star lineup in California is an expression of a team-wide culture change that took root after EF Education First purchased the Slipstream team in late 2017.

“I think for a couple of years we were honestly a bit lost about our true identity, and who we were in the peloton and how we wanted to race,” Craddock said. “We’ve seen a big transition starting last year. Winning begets winning. We’re starting to have that culture on the team where we’ve tasted success and we want more. The roster we’ve brought here reflects that.”

The team will now ride the front for at least three of the next four days: Wednesday’s 214km stage into Morro Bay is one for the sprinters.

The true test will come on Friday’s GC battle on the slopes of Mt. Baldy, a 4,500-climb that ends with 15 punishing switchbacks to the summit. The climb appears custom fit for van Garderen’s abilities on long, grinding ascents. Van Garderen says he expects a battle.

The real question is whether EF Education First is ready to rewrite its own history.

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