Despite having taken the race lead by 35 seconds during Friday’s Big Bear Lake time trial and facing a final stage that many have marked down for the sprinters, George Bennett and his LottoNL-Jumbo team will have to survive another day of “real racing” if he wants to win the final general classification of the Tour of California.
“I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of the course tomorrow, but I know the general area and it’s the same kind of roads we were up in [during stage 5 to Mt. Baldy],” Bookwalter said at the post-stage press conference Friday in Big Bear.
“I think the profile is deceiving,” he said. “I was at the pre-race press conference and all the sprinters were saying stage 7 had a star on it. But if you look at the stage two days ago and how much I saw some of those sprinters suffering on a five-minute climb, the climbs tomorrow are real climbs. By most people’s standards they’d be mountains.”
Saturday’s 125km final stage starts at the Mountain High Ski Resort at more than 2,000 metres above sea level and finishes in Pasadena at 266 metres. Although the stage profile is a generally downhill run, there are three categorised climbs along the way.
The first climb comes 47.5km into the day when the riders will tackle the Mt. Emma Road summit, which features a gradient of 5.2 percent for 5km. The Angeles Forest Highway summit comes next at 59km, throwing another 3km of climbing at peloton. The final climb is the second category ascent of Upper Big Tujunga Canyon, which tops out with 41.5km to go after climbing at 4.6 percent for 7.8km.
“It’s five, six, seven kilometres of actual climbing,” Bookwalter said of Saturday’s challenges. “That’s enough to make a difference, and that’s enough to shake things up. It’s seven days into the race, and we had an altitude effort today, so like George said, there’s no champagne and goofing around tomorrow. It will be real racing.”
Bookwalter, who finished third in California last year, is just nine seconds off this year’s podium behind third-placed Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac), 10 seconds behind runner-up Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) and 45 seconds behind Bennett.
His second place in Friday’s time trial behind stage winner Jon Dibben (Team Sky) and ahead of Talansky put Bookwalter in position to try something on Saturday to move onto this year’s podium. Asked to describe the intensity of Friday’s time trial effort at altitude, Bookwalter had just three words.
“Miserable, sick and wrong,” he said. “We all knew it wasn’t going to be pretty. Fortunately I was up here training before the race and I stayed right on the course, so I put a lot of preparation into it. I think that served me well today.”
Bookwalter said that after training at Big Bear before the race, he knew what kind of pain he and the others had in store for their near-30-minute effort that came on Friday. He said he was forced to push the anxiety out of his head before the start.
“It was really just relentless, lots of oxygen debt and just sort of delirious at the end,” he said. “I think we all pushed ourselves to the absolute limit.”
Bookwalter also credited the creative and sometimes technical course with inspiring his effort.
“I’m always a little critical of a lot of the time trial courses in the US because it’s sort of the standard and out and back,” he said. “Traditionally these US time trial courses are a little boring because we’re on some big road and it’s an out and back, and although this one was an out and back it was dynamic. It was interesting.”