“I think after today it has definitely become more of a reality,” Craddock said. “I just have to stay safe these next couple of days and try and be up there on [the stage 6 finish atop] Mountain High.”
During the 2013 stage that ended on Mt. Diablo, the 16km climb that features pitches of 17 per cent near the top, the then-21-year-old Craddock turned heads with an impressive seventh-place finish, just 32 seconds behind winner Leopold König. Now riding for Giant-Shimano, the neo-pro said he's been targeting the stage since finding out his team would be at the race.
“I think this course last year was kind of my breakout ride,” he said. “It really showed that I could climb uphill, so I had this date circled, and the team did just a perfect job all day. It was a hot day, so they were keeping everyone hydrated and refueled. It was up to me to repay them, and I'm really glad I could.”
With another year of development and experience to fall back on, Craddock waited until the very end of the climb to make his move rather than jumping away from the lead group early, like he did in his previous attempt at the stage finish in 2013.
“I made the mistake of going too early last year and really fading hard on the last steep pitch,” he said. “This year was the opposite, I kind of stuck with the group and tried to save my energy, and then when you make that curve and can see the finish line, I felt no pain in my legs. I shifted down a couple and just stood up. I don't think I looked very pretty, but that's the way it goes.”
Craddock stormed up the final pitch to the finish, crossing the line eight seconds behind winner Rohan Dennis (Garmin-Sharp) and six seconds behind runner-up Tiago Machado (Team Net App-Endura). He's now fourth in the general classification, 1:21 behind race leader Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) but just 16 seconds behind Machado in third. Dennis is second overall, just 24 seconds behind Wiggins.
The Diablo stage had several added challenges this year, beginning with the hors category climb up Mt. Hamilton almost immediately after the start, followed by a long slog to Diablo through nearly 100-degree [Fahrenheit] heat.
“There was the early climb and the never-ending descent after it, and it made for a really tough day,” Craddock said. “The first half of the race was pretty slow as always, kind of dragging uphill. I think that zapped a lot of energy, and with the heat you really had to focus on how you were staying hydrated and staying cool.”
But the 22-year-old from Houston, Texas, obviously handled the added challenges well, a sign that his development as a professional rider is right on track.
“I'd like to think that I'm always improving,” Craddock said. “I'm definitely a year stronger this year, and I'm definitely a year dumber. But it was really exciting, and I knew after last year that I could do something on this stage. It was the stage that everyone looked at this year, and I knew it was going to be decisive for GC.”
The tactics from the rest of the GC riders among the lead group on Diablo also played into Craddock's favor, as he was able to follow the leaders until the time was right to take his own chance.
“Wiggins set just a hard tempo the entire time, and that was little better for me,” he said. “I'm not really good at the accelerations and slowing down. I knew that with the finishing pitch being so hard it would be better to save a little energy and then really just give it your all.”
The Tour of California continues today with the stage 4 run down the Pacific Coast Highway from Monterey to Cambria. The stage profile likely favors the sprinters, while Thursday's stage from Pismo Beach to Santa Barbara features the category 1 climb of San Marcos pass just 26km from the finish. The GC fireworks should really go off during Friday's stage from Santa Clarita to Mountain High, another hors category climb.