In one of the most impressive team and individual performances of the Amgen Tour of California, Chris Horner (USA) of Team RadioShack out performed his competitors, and teammate Levi Leipheimer (USA), to win the first true mountaintop finish in the history of the race atop Sierra Road outside San Jose. Stage 4 of the race was short, but intense, challenging riders with a total of five King of the Mountains competitions (KOMs), two of which are legendary in California cycling lore – Mt. Hamilton and Sierra Rd. As Horner crossed the finish line, he raised his fists in the air to cheers from the throng of roaring fans who had flocked to the top of the mountain to witness competitive cycling at its best. Horner built a lead of one minute and 15 seconds over his nearest competitor, teammate and three-time event winner Leipheimer. Colorado’s Tom Danielson of Team Garmin-Cervelo is one minute and 22 seconds back in third place.
“Our goal today was to blow apart the field, and we did,” said Horner, who at 39 years-old is in the best form of his 16-year pro career. “The last five weeks I was on a mission to come to the Amgen Tour of California in the best fitness of my life. I’ve put in the best five weeks of training, and it has been a hard five weeks, but it was worth it because it was an easy five kilometers to the top of the summit.”
Paying tribute to cyclist Wouter Weylandt, who died tragically while racing in the Giro d’Italia just last week, Stage 4 began in the city of Livermore with a moment of silence for the fallen Leopard Trek rider. The Leopard Trek team, led by Andy Schleck (LUX), was brought to the front of the line to lead out the group for what would be an intense, grueling stage.
The attacks started immediately with Bissell Pro Cycling at the front of several attempted breaks, but nothing stuck. The first real break was established with 10 riders from eight different teams, which claimed a 40-second lead on the pack. With five kilometers to go before the first KOM of the day on Mines Road, the 10 men worked together to establish a gap of two minutes and 40 seconds over the group. Lars Boom (NED) of Rabobank Cycling Team was the first to reach the top of the first KOM competition, and by the end, the gap between the breakaway and peloton was two minutes and 30 seconds.
The next two KOMs on San Antonio Valley Rd., both category four-rated climbs, were won by Will Routley (CAN) of Team Spidertech Powered by C10 and Jesse Anthony (USA) Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth, respectively. On the descent of the second KOM, the gap was closed, but split again once the group hit flatter ground.
At the front of the peloton, Team RadioShack continued to set the tempo, working for team captain Leipheimer and Horner, and managed to keep the gap to less than one minute. With back-to-back KOMs, the climbers put serious pressure on the group as everyone rolled closer to the last two big mountains of the day.
With five kilometers to go to the third KOM, the gap had increased a bit with a lead of one minute and 10 seconds on the chasers, still led by Team RadioShack. Ryder Hesjedal (CAN) of Team Garmin-Cervelo launched an attack on a small climb that interrupted the decent and was quickly joined by Paul Martens (GER) of Rabobank Cycling Team, but Hesjedal continued to do most of the work on the front. On the third KOM, Anthony crossed the line first, and the fourth KOM was captured by Jonathan Patrick McCarty (USA) of Team Spidertech Powered by C10.
As the race continued, three riders from Team RadioShack kept pace at the front of the peloton. Horner and Leipheimer leapt off the front to chase Hesjedal, leaving Schleck and David Zabriskie (USA) of Team Garmin-Cervelo behind. They were able to catch him, but Horner proved to be too strong for both and he established a gap between himself and Leipheimer and Hesjedal, a decisive move that put Horner in the lead with three kilometers to go until the finish.
Leipheimer and Hesjedal continued to lose ground as their chasers closed in, and with one kilometer to go, Horner had a lead of one minute and five seconds, riding confidently on his own.
While the Amgen Tour of California has gone over Sierra Rd. every year since its inception, today was the first time the race finished at the top. Painfully steep, Sierra Rd. is 3.5 miles long and climbs to more than 1,700 feet with an average grade of 9.4 percent. At the top of the mountain, Horner placed first, Schleck rode to second and Rory Sutherland (AUS) of UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling took third.
“This is it. For us, this race is the Tour de France,” said Sutherland. “It is a huge objective for our sponsor and to be able to get on the podium today was very exhilarating; it just so happened that Chris (Horner) was going a little faster than us. This race is what we have been working for. We started working towards this a month after the Amgen Tour of California last year.”
Race jerseys for Stage 4 were awarded as follows: Horner claimed the Amgen Race Leader Jersey; Peter Sagan (SVK) of Liquigas-Cannondale won the Herbalife Sprint Jersey; McCarty was the first in the race and was awarded the California Travel & Tourism King of the Mountains (KOM) Jersey; Andrew Talansky (USA) of Team Garmin-Cervelo won the Rabobank Best Young Rider Jersey; and Amgen’s Breakaway from Cancer® Most Courageous Rider Jersey was awarded to Hesjedal for his work at the front of the breakaway.
The top-three general classification leaders after today are Horner in first, Leipheimer in second and Tom Danielson (USA) of Garmin-Cervelo in third. Team Garmin-Cervelo is leading the teams classification.
“On today’s stage, we had the guys to bring the pressure,” said Hesjedal. “It was fun to see Levi (Leipheimer) and Chris (Horner) out there today. Chris just kind of rolled away and Levi sat on me. Fortunately, I was able to stay in there and bring a little bit of time back for the team. There is still a lot of racing left and putting pressure on Team RadioShack over the next few days is a big goal of ours.”
The longest stage of the race, Stage 5 will still start in Seaside and continue through decommissioned Fort Ord into Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, home of the Sea Otter Classic. A few turns will take the riders out onto Hwy 68 and the peloton will soon tackle the first of four KOMs, Laureles Grade. A fast four-mile descent will bring the race into the quaint village of Carmel Valley and the first of two Sprints of the stage.
Dotted with wineries and horse farms, the landscapes and vistas are of an undiscovered California, making it one of the most beautiful stages in the history of the Amgen Tour of California. After scaling two more KOMs, the riders will descend to the Carmel Valley River and roll toward the second Sprint in the rural town of Greenfield. As the race passes through the towns of King City and San Lucas, the riders will head west to more rolling hills.
With more than 30 miles to Paso Robles, the riders will rarely see a flat section of road again. Splitting Lake Nacimiento and Lake San Antonio, the climbers will contest the fourth and final KOM of the stage. The final push into Paso Robles rolls past some of the best wineries in the state.
At the end of the day, the racers will have spent more than 6.5 hours on the bike as they cover 135 miles and nearly 10,000 ft. of climbing.