With the sun shining and an enthusiastic crowd cheering, 21-year-old Peter Sagan (SVK) of Liquigas-Cannondale raced across the finish line, narrowly beating Leigh Howard (AUS) of HTC-Highroad and Ben Swift (GBR) of Sky Procycling, who placed second and third, respectively, to clinch the Stage 5 win during the 2011 Amgen Tour of California in a time of five hours, 16 minutes and three seconds. The longest stage of this year’s race, the 135.1-mile route was originally intended to travel along California’s iconic Highway 1, but had to be modified last month when landslides blocked the road after late winter storms. The new route tested the riders’ endurance and delivered a spectacular sprint to the finish in Paso Robles, Calif., after winding its way through one of the most beautiful stages in the history of the race.
“I would like to thank my teammates because without their hard work, today’s win wouldn’t be possible, or at the very least, it would have been more difficult,” said Sagan. “I would also like to thank my sponsors because they feel this race is important as well.”
Heading out of Seaside, the official start city for Stage 5, the peloton headed out in a neutral start to Laguna Seca through rolling, green hills and toward Fort Ord military base where the race officially started. Bissell Pro Cycling, who has been very aggressive in the race thus far, putting riders in every decisive break, went on the attack. But with the peloton together and moving at a brisk pace, they began the ascent of the first of four King of the Mountains competitions (KOM) of the day, a category 4 climb up Laureles Grade.
After a few failed breakaway attempts, a four-man break, comprised of three-time world champion Oscar Freire (ESP) of Rabobank Cycling Team, Christopher Froome (GBR) of Sky Procycling, Daniel Martin (IRE) of Team Garmin-Cervelo and Christopher Baldwin (USA) of Bissell Pro Cycling, formed and cleared the first KOM of the day with Freire in the lead. The first break was neutralized after the KOM but another eight riders went off the front and, 40 kilometers into the stage, had a lead of one minute and 40 seconds over the peloton as they approached the second KOM. Passing through, a group of 10 riders made it to the front, with Jonathan Patrick McCarty (USA) of Team Spidertech Powered by C10, who started the day in the California Travel & Tourism King of the Mountains Jersey, taking first in the competition.
After today’s third KOM, a category 4 climb on Carmel Valley Road, the breakaway had established a three minute and 50 second lead over the group, speeding along the course ahead of the fastest projected time schedule. Team RadioShack continued to set the tempo of the peloton, keeping the break in check.
In approach of the fourth KOM, the break began to split, and McCarty and Jesse Anthony (USA) of Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth, who were battling each other for overall KOM points, began their final dual of the day. In the end, it was McCarty who gained the maximum points for the coveted Herbalife Sprint Jersey.
With U.S. Road Champion Ben King (USA) of Team RadioShack driving the peloton, Freire and Stefan Denifl (AUT) of Leopard Trek worked well together to hold steady at two minutes and 25 seconds up on the peloton with 24.5 kilometers to go. Flying downhill, it became a mission for the sprinters’ teams to bring them back, but after Denifl suffered a flat, Freire was left to race toward the finish alone with 14 kilometers to go.
Stretching out single file, with Liquigas-Cannondale inflicting damage, King rejoined the front for Team RadioShack, and what was left of the break was shattered in between Freire and the peloton. With 9.9 kilometers to go, Freire’s lead went from one minute, 20 seconds to one minute, 10 seconds, and with HTC-Highroad off the front, the peloton began to split on a false flat. Freire was caught with 2.4 kilometers to go, all but ending his hopes of a first place finish for the stage.
“The last part of the race was the biggest problem because Denifl got a flat,” said Freire. “With two riders it was easier to ride. On the last climb I really exploded and lost almost 40 seconds; if we were still riding together I would have had a better chance to arrive. I almost won, but the peloton was too strong in the last three kilometers.”
Under intense pressure, the field broke up and Sagan sped to the front to claim the stage victory, followed quickly by Howard and then Swift. After nearly six hours on the bikes, Stage 5 of the 2011 Amgen Tour of California came to a close with another all-out battle on the streets of Paso Robles.
At the end of Stage 5, Horner retains the Amgen Race Leader Jersey for the second day in a row. Building on his 2010 overall Herbalife Sprint Jersey title, Stage 5 winner Sagan claimed the green jersey for the third day in a row, and McCarty retained the California Travel & Tourism King of the Mountains (KOM) Jersey for the second day in a row. The Rabobank Best Young Rider Jersey was awarded to Tejay Van Garderen (USA) of HTC-Highroad and Amgen’s Breakaway from Cancer® Most Courageous Rider Jersey went to Freire for his aggressive riding in the breakaway throughout the stage.
“The Amgen Tour of California is a great race,” said McCarty. “I did the first edition back in 2006 when Floyd (Landis) won. This is the biggest race in America and I am proud to be here and to be doing well. It is always nice to come back to America to race with so many fans.”
The top-three general classification leaders remain the same with Horner in first, Levi Leipheimer (USA) of Team RadioShack in second (one minute and 15 seconds behind) and Thomas Danielson (USA) of Team Garmin-Cervelo in third (one minute and 22 seconds behind).
“It was a big ride today and the breakaway group was a bit large,” said Horner. “It was a lot of work and Liquigas-Cannondale and Team RadioShack did great today. I don’t think anyone had a better ride than Peter (Sagan) and me. We both had a great team looking after us, especially with the crosswinds we faced today.”
After a hiatus in 2010, the Amgen Tour of California’s individual time trial returns to Solvang, the quaint Danish village that plays host annually to some of the Pro Tour teams for training camps, as well as some of the largest cycling events in the U.S. With the start and finish lines located only one block apart, Stage 6 will be an ideal location for spectators to view the race. The route will highlight the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley, winding through quaint towns, vineyards and farms, and one short but steep climb up Ballard Canyon. This year’s short, flat and fast time trial will create a challenging test for the riders and is expected to be a decisive day of the race. As in the past, the Solvang time trial will separate the true contenders for the Amgen Leader Jersey from the rest of the field.