Of the 117 riders who started the 2018 Amgen Tour of California with ambitions for themselves and their teams, it was left to two young Colombians to claim five of the seven stages and the overall classification.
Egan Bernal – Team Sky's 21-year-old prodigy, who is in the first year of a three-year deal – took the two mountain stages and put in a good enough time trial to stake his claim to the final yellow jersey, while 23-year-old Fernando Gaviria cemented his place as a top Tour de France sprint contender with three stage wins against a stellar field.
Latvian Toms Skujins of Trek-Segafredo [winner of stage 3] and American Tejay van Garderen of BMC Racing [stage 4] were the only other riders able to break the hold Bernal and Gaviria had on the race. It was an impressive display for riders from a country that has been known for its climbers but has now begun to produce top sprinters as well.
"The Colombian people really love cycling," Bernal said in the post-race press conference, "so it's good to be here winning stages and taking the overall. And it's great to see Fernando winning, too. I'm sure it's made the Colombian fans very happy. And that makes me happy because when we're in Colombia we really feel their support."
Gaviria, seated next to Bernal on the press-conference dais, was more succinct.
"It's nice," he said, flashing his big, trademark smile that reveals he's still young enough to be wearing braces on his teeth.
Gaviria started the week with a stage win in Long Beach on a pan-flat circuit that twisted and turned through the scenic port town. With his well-drilled lead-out train dropping him off in a perfect position, he made beating Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott), Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin), Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) and Dimension Data's Mark Cavendish almost look easy.
The next opportunity for the sprinters came on on stage 5 and involved a chaotic run to the line that saw a big crash at 4km to go. Gaviria and his team, however, managed it well, and he took his second win ahead of Ewan and Sagan. On Saturday in Sacramento, Gaviria had to fight all the way to the line as Team Sunweb's Max Walscheid surged forward, but a bike-throw and a photo-finish brought Gaviria his third win of the week.
"Yes, three sprints, but different sprints," Gaviria said when asked about his successful week. "There was only one day when I had really, really good legs, and that was for the second stage win. But the team always did a really good job."
Trust in your teammates
Gaviria was able to rely on the services of fellow Colombian Alvaro Hodeg, as well as Iljo Keisse, Jhonatan Narvaez and Max Richeze, all of whom raced with Gaviria at the Vuelta a San Juan and Colombia Oro y Paz stage races earlier this season, where Gaviria took one and three stage wins, respectively.
Gaviria trusts his teammates, and they trust his abilities to finish off their work with a victory. He credited his teammates' efforts again on Saturday for making the difference.
"Today, when entering the circuit, it was really hard to control the sprint because of the corners," he said. "It was really fast. Sky was pulling and Katusha wanted to stay at the front, so we went back a little bit. In the last corner, I told my teammates to go full gas because maybe things would change after the corner with 1km to go. That's how I got the victory today, and all my other stage wins have been the same: they've always come thanks to my teammates."
It's not clear what kind of roster Gaviria will have around him in France, but with his California performance against many of the riders he'll face in July, his stock has risen to the level of 'favourite' for the Grand Tour's fast finishes. On Saturday, he brushed off any such pronouncements.
"It's a long time to go, no?" he said of the Tour. "It's a good time for training and to get more condition.
"The first stage is 100 per cent for the sprinters," he said of the Tour's 201km opener between Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile and Fontenay-le-Comte on July 7. "I want the yellow jersey, but it will be difficult because all the other riders will want to take the jersey, too. But I'll prepare for the Tour and will be at 100 per cent there."
A Grand Tour for Bernal?
As with Gaviria, Bernal's success this year has amped up the speculation about his potential in the Grand Tours, but he said on Saturday that there's no timeline set for when he will ride his first three-week race. It could be this year's Vuelta a Espana if he and his team believe he's ready.
"I'm not sure yet," Bernal said. "I'd like to do a Grand Tour, for sure. But I'm just 21 years old, and a Grand Tour might be too much for me at this point. I'm not sure. We'll work toward it, but if we see that I'm not ready for a Grand Tour, then it won't happen yet. Like I said, I would like to do one. Maybe I'll do the Vuelta, but I'm not sure yet."