After four days of bunch sprints, the general classification is finally starting to evolve in the 2012 edition of the Amgen Tour of California: the race lead has been assumed by time trial winner David Zabriskie but his 34 second lead over second placed Tejay van Garderen and even the 2:50 he has on last year's winner Chris Horner may not be a big enough buffer when it comes to the Mt. Baldy mountaintop finish.
While Zabriskie has twice claimed second overall here, he didn't feature last year when the key stage finished on Mt. Baldy, coming in 14 minutes behind Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner. He admits that the important gap is not the 2:50 Horner lost, but the gaps between all of the climbers. However, last year he was in a very different position coming into the Mt. Baldy stage, and he's not giving up on the idea that he can win the overall, although he won't give his odds.
"Definitely. I'm not going to lie down and give it away," Horner stated. "David Zabriskie is going to fight until he's lying on the ground almost dying. I can't give you a percentage number because I don't like math."
Zabriskie's director Jonathan Vaughters said the performances of the other contenders won't affect his team's tactics. Robert Gesink is 38 seconds behind and a notable climber, Van Garderen, who is also strong on the climbs and who held Garmin's GC rider Tom Danielson to 28 seconds on Mt. Baldy last year, and Peter Velits of Omega Pharma-Quickstep and Levi Leipheimer are 49 seconds and 1:44 back. Additionally, Vincenzo Nibali is at 1:52 and as the only Grand Tour champion in the race, he is always going to be a threat in the mountains.
"You sort of forget about one guy and have to focus on somebody else. Honestly, it doesn't really affect our game plan at all," Vaughters said. "We'll see how tomorrow plays out. I can tell you we're going to do X, Y and Z tomorrow, but the other teams will have a plan, too, so you sort of have to adapt on the fly to what they're doing as well. We're here to win the overall, and we're going to have to sit down tonight and carefully plan out whether defending the jersey makes sense to try and win the overall race, or if playing some riskier tactics makes sense, and I don't know the answer to that yet."
Van Garderen thinks that the Big Bear stage may not prove to be decisive for the overall, but it will be a long, stressful day.
"Tomorrow will be a stressful, interesting day because there is a hard climb pretty early on in the stage and I'm guessing that the breakaway is going to go there," he said. "When you have a breakaway going out of the climb it's the stronger riders and not the lucky riders. That means in order to catch it back you have to go a lot harder. It's just going to be a grind all day tomorrow. Yeah tomorrow is going to kill the legs but the group coming to the finish may be like 15 guys - maybe there's a chance for a time bonus sprint, but the real show down is going to be on Mt. Baldy."
The BMC rider is feeling good about his form at the moment, but finds it difficult to assess the other riders considering the climber's haven't attacked any of the earlier stage's climbs.
"We really haven't gone full gas on some of the climbs," he said. "But from what I've seen Danielson's looking really good. Horner, of course, is looking really good. Talansky's looking good. And Rabobank, they've always been present at the front but it's hard to tell until you really go full gas on the climb."
One of the unknown quantities is Velits, who has been on a Grand Tour podium in the 2010 Vuelta a Espana, and has been given the green light by Leipheimer to ride his own race for the overall, but he said he didn't want to think about racing for the final win quite yet.
"Until the race is over, maybe a few things can happen in this race," he mused. "But this race is a first race for me after not racing to rest, so it's not about racing for the GC, it's how it feels for me and how the legs are.
"The most important races are coming for me, but of course I will do my best on Mt. Baldy to move up in the GC. But I am not saying I am in perfect shape here, and I am not saying I am aiming for the overall. I am simply trying my best and if and when I have the legs I will go for it."
Meanwhile, Horner has not given up on his aspirations for the overall, even though his time trial showed his form is not quite there. He hopes his legs will come around and maybe he can be given a little leash on the climb tomorrow or Saturday because of his large deficit.
"I'm sure everyone's going to have to watch Talansky, Zabriskie, and Gesink. If I can put them in the red, if my form comes back maybe they'll let me go, maybe I can get a stage win and get on the [final] podium. [2:50 is] a lot of time to make up. I'm going to have to become very good."
Horner said the time loss isn't going to change how he approaches the final stages, it only means the impetus will be on other teams to do the work now that they have nothing to defend.
"Now I don't have to light it up on the bottom of the climb, the riders who are on second or third on GC have to do that, maybe I can play off that and get a stage win."