Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-QuickStep) had a rough day on stage 1 of the Tour of California, losing 15 seconds at the end of pancake-flat stage that ended in a bunch sprint after three closing circuits in downtown Sacramento. But on Monday he won the epic stage 2 climbing fest to South Lake Tahoe, where he beat Tejay van Garderen (EF Education First) and Gianni Moscon (Team Ineos) in a three-up sprint and earned himself a 10-second time bonus.
Asgreen's 15-second deficit from Sunday, however, meant that he could only claim third overall, as van Garderen's six-second bonus for second place and Moscon's four seconds lifted them past the Deceuninck-QuickStep rider and into first and second overall, respectively.
Nevertheless, the stage victory – Asgreen's first professional win – was a huge accomplishment for the 24-year-old Dane.
"It's my first pro win, so I'm really, really happy right now," Asgreen said at the post-stage press conference. "It's huge for me, and to take it on a stage like this, a really hard stage, means that I'm really happy with that."
Asgreen had tried several attacks and finally made it into the select lead group that climbed to the parking lot of the Heavenly Resort in Tahoe to battle for the win and the race lead.
Astana launched Davide Ballerini off the front with 2km to go, but van Garderen led the group back to the front. The pace of the EF rider shattered the group as the road reared up, leaving just him, Moscon, Asgreen and UAE Team Emirates' Tadej Pogačar in the lead.
Van Garderen hit out first and was quickly countered by Asgreen and Moscon as the trio separated themselves from the group. In the end, Asgreen had too much speed, and van Garderen and Moscon had to settle for second and third on the stage.
"Tejay opened his sprint, or made an attack quite early, and then when he died down a little bit, I thought now is the chance, and I just went for it," Asgreen said. "It was a little bit longer than I wanted it to be, but, fortunately, I could hold it all the way to the line."
Asgreen said he was not the designated leader of his Deceuninck-QuickStep team, which also includes Zdenek Stybar and a strong lead-out train for sprinter Fabio Jakobsen. But he said the team is using an open policy of whichever rider has the best legs on any given day.
"We don't really have a big favourite here," he said. "There are not many climbers; maybe me and Stybar on a good day can do something. So everyone more or less had a free role to do the best they could.
"We just tried to hang on as long as possible, and in the end I felt good, so I tried to go with Lachlan Morton [EF Education First] on the second-to-last KOM. He was a little bit faster than me, but a group came from behind and I could join them, so that was a good way to get the final started."
Asgreen's win comes on the day that Deceuninck-QuickStep thought they had taken the sprint win on stage 3 of the Giro d'Italia with Elia Viviani, but the Italian road race champion was relegated for irregular riding. The QuickStep boys at California could be heard cheering for their Italian teammate from inside the team camper before their own race started. But the high quickly receded as the judges' ruling took the win away.
"We saw it just before we left the camper," Asgreen said. "It's a bit unfortunate. I didn't see what happened, so I don't know. But this was a nice way for the team to make up for it with a victory over here."
The young Dane, who is in his second year with Deceuninck-QuickStep, turned heads earlier this year when he finished second to EF Education First's Alberto Bettiol at the Tour of Flanders. It was an amazing performance that bodes well for his future as a Classics star. But his performance during Monday's high-altitude stage calls into question whether he wants to be a Classics rider or a climber.
"For sure, the Classics," he said without hesitation when asked which he prefers. "I've never had as much fun on the bike as I did during the Classics this year, so the Classics will be my big goal for hopefully the next many years."