Stage 3 at the Amgen Tour of California played out as expected, the early break was reeled in by the charging peloton, ramping up the speed for the final bunch sprint. But there’s a lot more to it than that, let’s take a closer look at the tactics of the breakaway, with insights from Christian Meier (UnitedHealthcare) and Andy Jacques-Maynes (BISSELL).
After a canceled stage followed by a shortened stage, things got back to normal in Auburn on Tuesday morning. The Continental and Pro Continental teams were itching to get in the breakaway, for two goals really, the Most Courageous jersey as part of the podium ceremony and TV time.
“It was bound to come down to a sprint from the start but it was important for the team today to have someone in the break and we discussed it in the meeting and they asked me to go for the breakaway, to get us on TV like everyone else is trying to do. I think that it was very successful for that.” Meier said.
He admits to thinking about the jersey right from the start, you see he had an extra incentive. “I had in mind as well of trying to put in an attack at the end and going for the Most Courageous rider jersey and I wanted to kiss my wife on the podium.” Meier laughed. His wife, Amber, is one of the two podium presenting hostesses for the race.
“The easiest break I’ve ever gotten into” said Jacques-Maynes. It didn’t take long for the break to take off on the 121-mile (196 km) stage, it took one attack but first the field had to tackle the starting circuits in the neutral section.
“The neutral that they had go on three times was the hardest neutral I’ve ever done. It had all these little walls and stuff, everybody was like ‘can we just start racing because my heart rate is going through the roof right now, this is hard’. We finally roll out and then there was just one attack and that was it.” Jacques-Maynes explained.
“It pretty much went straight from the gun.” Meier agreed. “It was one of those days where I think that the group was pretty happy to see the break go. We all knew that it was a long day and a lot of headwind so I don’t think they were too concerned about it and there was a little bit of an uphill so we just went there.”
The previous day, a few teams kept missing the break and attacks were reeled in time and again before the move finally went. Not this time, all but one of the smaller team was represented. Joining Meier and Jacques-Maynes in the move were Mike Creed (Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth), Jan Barta (NetApp), Will Dickeson (Jelly Belly), Phil Gaimon (Kenda5-Hour Energy) and Jamey Driscoll (Jamis/Sutter Home). For Driscoll, it was the second time in two days that he found himself in THE break of the day.
The break was easily established but the seven riders were faced with rain and block headwind. Both Jacques-Maynes and Meier agreed that the wind was the biggest factor.
“When you’re in a breakaway, when you’re six guys you definitely don’t float around as easy as in the peloton, you’re on the pedals all day.” Meier said about the headwind.
“At same point we were just beating our head against the wall and I looked down and we were going 18 mph, and I was like ‘you got to be kidding, this is going to take forever’. “ Jacques-Maynes commented about the headwind.
The sprints. Three intermediate sprints were peppered through the rolling course in the Central Valley, with the first one coming at 17 miles into the stage.
The riders in the break were caught by surprise when Barta attacked.
“At 800 meters, he just jumped it, kind of surprised everybody, we were just trying to figure out ‘is anybody going to sprint, does anybody care about this?’ I was the best placed guy and I was 20 seconds, it wasn’t that I was going to take the jersey because I got time bonuses. There are so few points, it’s not like you’re going to take the sprint jersey.” Jacques-Maynes said.
Not only were there sprint points and time bonuses for grabs, but a $1,000 prize for the first sprint. “If I had known that, I would have gone harder a little bit more.” Jacques-Maynes laughed.
Barta was first across the line followed by Gaimon and Jacques-Maynes.
After that attack, the riders settled back into the break and kept on rolling with the gap continually increasing, over six minutes some 20 miles later. But Barta’s attack caused some ripple in the move which were apparent in the second sprint, 50 miles into the stage.
“From then on I tried to contest them a little bit more and anticipate. I knew he was going to go for them, I tried to anticipate them a little bit more.” Meier said about Barta’s attack for the first sprint.
“I talked to the other guys who got points, ‘guys it doesn’t matter, let’s not sprint’.” Jacques-Maynes said. “I told Barta, you can have it, nobody cares and then of course, Meier attacks through a couple sketchy corners. They sprinted for the second sprint, and they had a little gap because they were sprinting and we just rolled back to them and carried on.”
Meier took the second sprint ahead of Creed and Jacques-Maynes. And the gap was hovering around the six minute mark.
Sitting on. “It wasn’t a super cohesive bunch” Jacques-Maynes said. The headwind, sometimes crosswinds when the road turned momentarily, and rain were starting to take a toll on some members of the break as the roads got “lumpy”.
“Some of us I guess were feeling the miles, even though we weren’t even halfway through the stage. Guys were cramping, guy were sitting on.” Jacques-Maynes said. “Guys were getting lazy, skipping pulls, not paying attention. Once Meier and I were just kind of rolling on over a little hill and I looked back and we were the only two, ‘really guys, halfway through the stage and you’re getting dropped’.”
Gaimon was the first to drop from the break while Meier, Driscoll and Jacques-Maynes consistently rotated through.
“They were pretty good about it, they’d take one pull and go back to sitting on and it let us get a little bit more rest which was appreciated.” Jacques-Maynes said about the riders sitting on. “I’ve been there, I’ve been the weak guy in the breakaway, ‘I don’t have much more to offer you sorry about that’, so I understand. It’s part of racing, sometimes you feel strong, sometimes you don’t.”
He added, “My legs felt great so I was just pretending that the guys that were sitting on, I just pretended that they weren’t there.”
“Eventually some guys got more tired than others and started to sit on a bit but we just kept it rolling. I felt good, especially on the hills I felt good. I think we just gave it all we had you know. “ Meier siad. His goal was to stay away until the final sprint at almost 100 miles into the stage.
One of the riders sitting on for 30 km leading into the third sprint was Barta, frustrating some of the riders including Jacques-Maynes who said he didn’t have a politically correct way of expressing his feelings.
Meier said about the situation, “I don’t know what exactly his deal was, usually if you’re planning on really riding you can contribute to the effort and we’d probably have all gone further together instead of sitting on for whatever he did, 30 km and then attack us.”
Meanwhile behind them the field had decided that it was time to bring down the gap to a more manageable time. With 25 miles (41 km) to go, it was down to 1:15 and the third and final sprint was looming.
Finale. The third sprint shattered the break when both Jacques-Maynes and Barta attacked.
“I had the thought that I would attack them right after the sprint, they wanted to sprint for it, I’ll just attack and keep on going. Barta thought the exact same thing, basically the two of us did a coordinated attack, we got away, put a quick minute into the rest of the guys and we actually put some time into the field.” Jacques-Maynes commented.
Meier could not counter. “The NetApp rider attacked right after the last one, I thought that might happen but just after sprinting, as soon as they attacked they got a little bit of a gap on us. At that point, the peloton was coming back on us pretty quick so we decided that we’d keep riding for awhile because we knew there was a crosswind section coming up, if we could make it there it would sort of benefit us. We rolled behind them.”
The last riders in the original break, Barta and Jacques-Maynes were finally reeled in with about 10 miles (16 km) to go. “Headwind, the crosswind, then headwind, a few more crosswind sections and the pack was raging up to us. The catch was made pretty quick.” Jacques-Maynes explained.
Both Meier and Jacques-Maynes agree that in the end it didn’t make a difference that some riders were sitting on.
“The sprinters team are all hungry.” Meier said. “With a headwind like that, the peloton is always going to have fresh riders to work because it’s so easy to sit in in the headwind. Usually the breakaway in that situation is probably doomed and they never gave us a huge huge gap and as soon as it settled in at six minutes, I knew that they were just controlling us and keeping us within easy reach really.”
“We were going against Saxo and Sky and HTC and Cervelo.” Jacques-Maynes said. “Guys super strong and motivated, they pulled the gap down to a minute and half and then just let it hover around two minutes. The writing’s on the wall, it’s not like that we’re going to fool ourselves that we’re going to make it. I know how it works.”
All the riders in the break received TV exposure and Barta was awarded the Most Courageous jersey.
Time to recover and get ready for Wednesday’s tough stage with its finish on Sierra Road.
“I feel alright but tomorrow is a tough day.” Meier said on Tuesday evening. “The big day energy wise, eat as much as I can tonight and tomorrow morning, hopefully come around again and be able to contribute tomorrow and help the team.”
“My legs felt great today, they felt awesome yesterday, I was riding great in the circuits yesterday and I felt great all day today. Of course, I’m a little tired, I’m hoping to turn it around and be able to ride pretty well tomorrow. I don’t really have any delusions that I’m going to make it over the big hills with those guys, the ProTour guys, it’s nice to be able to ride on home roads going into San Jose. I’m going to enjoy it as much as I can for sure.” Northern California resident Jacques-Maynes said.
And neither have given up on going for the break again and that jersey. “That’s the fun thing of a stage race, you can go fast for one day, everybody can, but to go again and again, that’s what stage racing is all about.” Jacques-Maynes concluded.