Stage 3 of the 2011 Amgen tour of California was one of the last stages for the sprinters to showcase their speed at the finish, and the riders did not disappoint. After two fast and furious circuit laps around downtown Modesto, Greg Henderson (NZL) of Sky Procycling not only took the stage win, but also overtook teammate Ben Swift (GBR) to become the overall race leader and earn the Amgen Race Leader Jersey, while keeping his team in the lead. Today’s race started in Auburn, appropriately known as the “Endurance Sports Capitol of the World,” and took the riders 120 miles before finishing in Modesto in a total time of five hours, 14 minutes and 29 seconds.
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“The last 10 kilometers was very chaotic with everyone fighting for the front and multiple changes in direction,” said Henderson. “I can’t thank my team enough. Jeremy Hunt got me to the final corner and I went with 500 meters to go. I wasn’t getting any slower and I was at 200 meters. Ben (Swift) didn’t catch up and I only had about five or six pedals to go. It was a surprise to me to win because you don’t typically sprint from 500 meters out. Winning today shows that I am in great condition and I was very lucky to hold everyone at the line.”
After a neutral start through Old Town Auburn, the race went live and the attacks started right away. A group of seven, made up of riders from UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling, Team NetApp, Bissell Pro Cycling, Jelly Belly Cycling p/b Kenda, Jamis-Sutter Home and Kenda/5-Hour Energy Pro Cycling p/b Geargrinder, made their way to the front where they led for the majority of the race. Fifty-eight kilometers into the stage, the race leaders created an advantage of six minutes and 40 seconds, working well together over the rolling hills.
The first intermediate Sprint competition took place in the town of Ione, and Jan Barta (CZE) of NetApp, Christian Meier (CAN) of United Healthcare Pro Cycling and Andy Jacques-Maynes (USA) of Bissell Pro Cycling took first, second and third, respectively. Traversing some of the most beautiful roads of Central California, the race continued on, passing through “Gold Country.”
Battling strong headwinds, the bunch was led by Sky Procycling, Team Garmin-Cervelo, HTC-Highroad and RadioShack, who all contributed riders to the front, gaining time on the break at the halfway point of the stage. Around this time, Phillip Gaimon (USA) of Kenda/5-Hour Energy Pro Cycling p/b Geargrinder slipped off the back of the break and it was down to six riders.
Meir crossed the line of the second intermediate Sprint first, followed by Michael Creed (USA) of Kelly Benefit Strategies second and Jacques-Maynes third. Shortly after, the lead broke up and only Barta and Jacques-Maynes remained, fighting a strong crosswind with the group close behind.
“The wind took all my strength today,” said Barta. “It wasn’t the rain that was difficult because it wasn’t that cold. It was the headwind that was by far the toughest thing we faced today. At the end, everybody was tired because it was a long stage and we didn’t have enough strength left.”
Cranking up the heat, Sky Procycling started to chase, which split the peloton into three clusters, neutralizing the group and leaving only a few riders at the front. Once the group hit the streets of Modesto, Team Spidertech Powered by C10 moved to the front of the peloton taking position for the finish of Stage 3.
After reaching the finish line for the first of two circuit laps, the pace was ratcheted up once again and the peloton began to stretch out. Five riders from Team Spidertech Powered by C10 went out to the front, but were quickly joined by Saxo Bank Sungard and Sky Procycling. With 2.4 kilometers to go, Sky Procycling took control, with Saxo Bank Sungard and Rabobank close behind.
After a chaotic sprint to the finish, which saw two crashes that resulted in only minor injuries, Henderson rocketed to the line to the take the win, followed by JJ Haedo (ARG) of Saxo Bank Sungard and Thor Hushovd (NOR) of Team Garmin-Cervelo.
“I had great help from the team all day and was always well placed,” said Hushovd. “Johan (Van Summeren) brought me up a few times and the whole team made sure I was protected. I was in perfect position in the last corner, but the group split and I couldn’t bridge the gap. I thought I had a good chance to win today (he won in Modesto in 2009), but I’m happy with third. The team rode great and we’re looking forward to some more exciting stages.”
Henderson claimed the Amgen Race Leader Jersey. Both the Herbalife Sprint Jersey and Rabobank Best Young Rider Jersey went to Peter Sagan (SVK), and Amgen’s Breakaway from Cancer® Most Courageous Rider Jersey was awarded to Barta. The California Travel & Tourism King of the Mountains (KOM) Jersey was not awarded again today, as the stage featured no KOM competitions.
The top-three general classification leaders after today are Henderson in first, Swift in second and Sagan in third.
Stage 4 is short, at just 81 miles, but what it lacks in distance it more than makes up for with difficulty. Two of Stage 4’s five rated climbs are legendary in California cycling lore. After the cyclists get their legs loosened a bit, the race will head out to Mines Rd. and to the first KOM of the day (and the race). At 25 miles long, it is hilly and winding, which will make it easy for a few riders to get off the front and create significant gaps from the peloton.
Mines Rd. becomes San Antonio Canyon Rd., and after shaking things up with two more KOMs, the riders will face the daunting challenge of Mt. Hamilton, the Tour’s first Hors Category climb. Next will be the treacherous descent down the front side of Mt. Hamilton, and almost immediately after finishing the descent, the race will take a turn onto Sierra Rd., a 3.5-mile ascent with a 10 percent average grade and 1,700 feet of climbing.
In honor of cyclist Wouter Weylandt, the young LEOPARD-TREK rider who died tragically while racing in the Giro d’Italia last week, there will be a moment of silence at the beginning of Stage 4 tomorrow, and the race will be led out by Weylandt’s team.