At the start of stage 3, all eyes were looking up the road, literally, with not only the first mountain-top finish of the race but the first KOM points attributed due to the canceled and shortened earlier stages. The climbers and GC contenders would now come out to the front of the race and at the end of 81-mile (131-km) stage some would be disappointed.
Three climbers, Canadian Champion Will Routley of Spidertech p/w C10, Tyler Wren of Jamis/Sutter Home and Chris Baldwin of BISSELL, were ready to test themselves against the best of the best.
Before the race, all agreed that the stage would be decisive, with the final climb to the finish at Sierra Road, a 3.5-mile ascent with a 10% average grade and 1,700’ feet of climbing.
What makes Sierra Road so hard? “It’s insanely steep right at the bottom, you come into it kind of hot so it’s a big change in rhythm, you don’t come into it slowly, it’s very violent, you’re flying along at 30 miles an hour and all of a sudden you have to sprint into a climb as steep as anything around. Then, after that, my least favorite part about it is that it becomes very pitchy, a whole bunch of ramps separated by flatter sections that’s my least favorite kind of climb, you’re changing your rhythm all the time. It’s just hard.” Baldwin replied.
The strategy for teams was simply either put one, or more, riders in the early break to go for points and help out their GC contender when the break was eventually caught. Or, to stay tucked in the field and wait for the detonation on Sierra.
“We’ve all seen this climb before, it’s always come in the middle of the stage, at the end of the stage but it’s always shattered. It’s short, it’s steep, it’s kind of Mogollon-esque.” said Wren, comparing the final climb up to the Mogollon stage at the SRAM Tour of the Gila. A stage where he finished second. “I’m feeling pretty good with that test a couple of weeks ago, the team is going to focus on protecting Luis and myself because we’re both looking to ride well here.”
The goal for his team was to rest a little bit, stay in the field to conserve a little bit after making the break for the previous days.
“There will be a break and I think we’re going to focus to stay with the big GC guys and see where we stack up against. We know we’re riding with the best riders in America, we’ll see where we stack up against these guys, we’ve conserved energy the last couple of days.” Wren added before the start of the stage.
Baldwin was all smiles at the start of the stage. “It looks like a big whole mess of climbs, it’s going to be whoever has some energy at the end of the day, it’s not just one climb like most of the races in America so it’s going to be fantastic.”
The Bissell team was going for the first option, put riders in the break as they had done for every stage. “Hopefully we can get a couple of guys up the road so they can be there for the end as well. Pretty straightforward stuff man, first true mountain-top finish at the Tour of California so it’s really exciting, very exciting.”
Routley expected stage 4 to be the first day of real hard racing. “The last few days the breakaway just kind of took off, more to get some exposure and maybe get the Most Courageous jersey. Today, the KOM hasn’t even started yet so it’s going to be a big battle for that and I think a few guys from the break will try and stay up there when teammates come across and they can be there to support them, and probably stay away until the last climb.”
Spidertech was also going for the break option with a goal of getting the KOM jersey. “It’s going to be a tough start but for us, we want to have a guy in that move, take part in that battle. We’d like to go for the KOM, maybe myself of Ryan Anderson. He was wearing it last year, he’s riding really well, he’s a good shot for it. I think we have a good shot at it.” Routley explained at the start. “I think ideally, the guy up there gets the KOM point and then has Lucas and Pat come across when the stronger GC guys go up, and then we’re there to help them. We want to be ahead of the game as opposed to struggling to keep up.”
But before the final push to the line, the second-to-last climb, the hors category 2-mile slog up Mt Hamilton followed by a tricky descent. Both Baldwin and Wren called it before the stage, the first selection to be made on Mt Hamilton.
“I would imagine some of the ProTour teams will set a stiff pace so a group of 40 or 50 over the top of that but I don’t see any big contenders attacking there because it is pretty far from the finish and there’s a technical descent afterwards. I know guys like Levi and guys like that are not as aggressive on the descent than on the climb.” Wren said.
“Honestly I’ve done Mt Hamilton two times and I don’t remember a big selection there, a little bit bot other people are talking about a big selection there. Obviously you have to be there but Sierra Road is steep enough, everything will take care of itself there.” Baldwin said. “I think a Radioshack or one of those teams will drive pretty hard on Mt Hamilton, and then you’ll see 40 guys going into Sierra Road.”
The break went off early with 10 riders from eight different teams: Rubens Bertogliati (Team Type 1-Sanofi Aventis), Ben Jacques-Maynes and Jeremy Vennell (Bissell), Alastair Loutit (Jelly Belly), Jesse Anthony (Kelly Benefit-OptumHealth), Jim Stemper (Kenda/5-hour Energy), Martin Pedersen (Leopard Trek), Lars Boom (Rabobank), World Champion Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo) and Routley.
The chase for the KOM was on on the first climb on Mines Road won by Boom followed by Routley and Anthony. The break stayed together for the next two KOM spots with a few riders battling for points, Routley took the second KOM ahead of Anthony and Boom while Anthony came out on top in the third ahead of Routley and Bertogliati.
Meanwhile behind, Radioshack was setting tempo never giving much of a leash to the break, spelling early doom for the 10 men off the front. Under pressure from the chase, the front group shattered on the climb up Mt Hamilton and they were reeled in one by one. The selection was made at the front as Radioshack set a mean pace to reel in two riders that counter-attack.
Sierra Road proved to be as decisive as predicted with four riders powering away from the chase. And then, there was one, Chris Horner (Radioshack) simply flew away on the climb, grinning, to solo to stage victory and take over the yellow jersey.
Behind him, it was a matter of survival.
“It was a hard day. It’s one thing to have a climb at the end of a medium day but this one, you’re putting out watts all day long, so it was really like a 3-hour crit. I think it just kind of exaggerates the fitness disparity between the ProTour guys and us, when it’s like that.” a bleary-eyed Wren said after the stage.
Wren and his teammate Luis Amaran made the selection off Mt Hamilton with Wren crossing the line in 26th place at 3:59 down.
“I think a little bit of a disappointment for the domestic guys I’m sure but it’s okay. You have two options, you can try to go with the leaders or throw the dice in the breakaway and maybe we’ll try the latter on Saturday. It was worth a try, I’m sure we weren’t too far away but…” Wren concluded.
Baldwin also made the selection off Mt Hamilton with his teammate Rob Britton. “It was alright, having two guys, Rob and I, in that group. Rob rode really well and I was proud of him.”
Baldwin finished 31st at 4:30 down behind Britton who was 25th at 3:37 down. He expressed his disappointment a few hours after the stage.
“I’m disappointed in my own performance, it was a hard day, I was fairly comfortable on Mt Hamilton so I was confident going into Sierra Road, and I’ve done it before, I knew the climb and what not but there was a big temperature swing from how we’d race earlier, the sun came out and all that moisture in the air, it was humid and hot, everyone had to race the same race, everyone had to deal with it but I was immediately over heated, just struggled, just didn’t have it. There’s no excuses, you either have it or you don’t, kind of know right away at the bottom of that thing.”
But Baldwin, like Wren, was looking towards the Queen Stage, stage 7 with the mountaintop finish on Mt Baldy. And of course, the 2-time National Time Trial champion was also thinking of the time trial in Solvang.
“Those guys were actually drilling it, it was really disappointing but I’m also optimistic that we have another good shot on Mt Baldy and a time trial too to get more time back so the race is not over. I had a bad first day at Gila and I felt a lot better by the end of it so I’m hoping I follow that pattern. I was really strong on the Gila monster, I don’t know I was really disappointed today, I really thought I had more in me than that, it was just pretty much exploded at the bottom of that thing. It’s obviously a very hard climb.” Baldwin concluded.
For Spidertech, the plan came together. Routley’s teammate Jonathan Patrick McCarty took top points on the final KOM on Mt Hamilton and grabbed the hotly contested red climber’s jersey. After being reeled, Routley settled in and finished in the gruppetto, conserving to fight another day.