Stage 2 of the Tour of California almost turned into an upset victory by three remaining escapees after a daylong breakaway benefited from some confusion in the peloton and stayed out front into the closing kilometres. In last year's race, breakaway riders won three stages, but Etixx-QuickStep made sure there were no repeats of that on Monday.
Daniel Oss (BMC Racing), Markel Irizar (Trek Factory Racing) and Robin Carpenter (Hincapie Racing) held off the charging bunch until about 5km to go, forcing Etixx-QuickStep and Tinkoff-Saxo to team up to bring the escapees’ day to an end.
The breakaway got its traction after countering six-rider move that tried its luck in the first 20km of the 193.7km stage from Nevada City to Lodi. Oss countered the early move and soon picked up a companion in Irizar.
"We jumped to bridge the gap, and then Oss jumped alone and I followed him," Irizar said. "I thought we would be four or five riders, but we were only two. So when we got word that two more were coming, we slowed up to make a group of four. That was a pretty good group."
Carpenter was also surprised at the numbers up front once he arrived in the group right behind Luis Amaran (Jamis-Hagens Berman), who also bridged to make a group of four about 28km into the day.
"Contrary to what you saw today, we wouldn’t really want to be riding in a breakaway of four or five," the Hincapie rider said. "We really want to look for the breaks of seven or 10 or even 15 guys.
"I bridged pretty early in the race thinking more guys were up the road. But when I got there, there were only three, so I adjusted expectations pretty quickly."
Oss, the experienced leadout man who helped Jempy Drucker finish third on Monday, said he knew that staying away on a flat, windy day would be a big ask, but spending the day out front was a good way to build form for his upcoming races.
"It was good for me because this race is good for looking for shape and looking forward to Dauphine and Tour de France," Oss said. "So I’m good."
The esapees got a lucky break when time splits were slow coming in from the peloton. The lack of information led the riders in the bunch to believe they were much closer than they actually were.
"From the end we didn’t see too much the time boards," said QuickStep’s Guillaume Van Kiersbulck. "At the end we saw it was still three minutes and we needed to ride with two extra guys and also with help fro Saxo. I think we caught them on the last lap. Actually it was not normal."
What the riders in the breakaway initially thought would be a somewhat fruitless adventure out front for a day soon turned into a possibility for one of them to take a stage win.
"I was expecting us to get caught about 15 to 20km to go," Carpenter said. "But when we saw that time gap and it was maybe 35km to go, it was game on at that point and we all started riding pretty hard. It was just a hair too little. It was pretty exciting for a while."
When the leaders made their way into Lodi with less than a minute, they ratcheted up the speed, and Amaran was quickly jettisoned out of the group, although Oss said his absence in the finale likely has little effect on the day’s outcome.
A massive crash in the peloton with 10km remaining also helped the break group, but it wasn’t quite enough. In the end the power of Cavendish’s QuickStep team was too much.
"The required work of today on the front was about the same as yesterday," said team director Brian Holm. "Today Martin Velits did a very good job, and then Stijn Vandenbergh took over. With the riders we had controlling the race it was going pretty well.
"But to be honest it was a little tight in chasing down the breakaway. They collaborated really well in front and we maybe underestimated a little bit. Still, we managed to bring it back, kept our leadout guys in front to avoid any bad luck like crashes, and in the end we won. So we're happy with that."
Most of the breakaway riders were happy with the day as well, despite not getting a chance to vie for the stage win. Carpenter now leads the mountains competition and the best young rider category, and Irizar, a cancer survivor, got the Breakaway From Cancer Most Courageous Rider jersey. Oss got a hard day of racing in ahead of bigger races down the line.