Although temperatures during Wednesday's stage 4 of the Amgen Tour of California cooled considerably from the previous days, the battle for the mountain classification was at full boil.
Three of the top five contenders for the polka dot jersey made the day's six-rider breakaway; noticeably absent from the group was KOM leader Carter Jones (Bissell Pro Cycling), but his Continental-ranked team had the 24-year-old rider's back.
Jones' teammates Chris Baldwin and Frank Pipp joined classification runner-up Jim Stemper (5-hour Energy/Kenda), fourth-placed KOM rider Marsh Cooper (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) and fifth-placed Chad Beyer (Champion System) - along with Bontrager's Nate Brown - in a move that went down the road just a handful of kilometers into the race. Despite the dangerous move, Baldwin and Pipp were able gobble up more than half the points on offer and help Jones keep his polka dot top.
"The only reason we were there was to protect that KOM jersey," Baldwin told Cyclingnews after the race. "We saw Stemper go, and honestly the idea was to bring Carter with me, but he was really ambitious at the beginning of the stage trying to go with every little jump, and he burned a lot of matches. But it was mission accomplished as far as trying to protect those points."
The 134.6 km stage featured just two KOM spots, the category 4 climb outside of Santa Paula at 67.5 km and the category 3 climb of Casitas Pass, exactly 100 km into the race.
Baldwin struck first, taking ultimate points in Santa Paula. Pipp, usually known for his turn of speed on the flats rather than his ability to fight gravity, grabbed third on the climb, leaving Stemper to collect a single point, while Cooper was second.
On the ascent of Casitas Pass, Bontrager's Brown lit out to grab the six points available to the first rider across, while Baldwin finished second with his teammate Pipp grabbing third. Cooper settled for fourth, leaving a single point for Beyer. Stemper was shut out completely.
"We kind of had a pretty good situation," Baldwin said of his team's efforts in the break. "[We had] one climber to go early and then one sprinter to stay with [Stemper] and attack him. I actually felt pretty bad for him. He worked really hard to get out there, and he's done a really good job getting some points. He just got the short end of the stick this afternoon."
For all his efforts, the 5-hour Energy rider came away with only a single point on the day and slipped to third in the mountains classification behind Cooper. The disappointment was evident as he talked to a reporter outside the team bus.
"I learned some valuable lessons about bike racing today," Stemper said. "I'm disappointed in myself for sure. That's the feeling for today. I'm just very disappointed. I guess I showed some naivete. I guess everyone has to learn that lesson. I wish I hadn't had to learn it at the Tour of California."
Stemper was upset that he not only had to fight the Bissell teammates and the other KOM contenders for the points, but also the Bontrager rider who was not really in the hunt for the jersey.
"I knew that Bissell would be racing me for it," he said. "But I guess maybe I thought everyone else in the break wouldn't care, and that was wrong. It was definitely wrong. And strategically I didn't play it well at all. In fact I messed it up unbelievably. I just wasn't strong enough. It's just disappointing."
Stemper apparently didn't know that deals were being cut in the team cars behind the breakaway that all but doomed his chances to exploit the day's move. Bissell director Omer Kem said he told all the other team directors that if they wanted Baldwin and Pipp to contribute to the group's pace, their riders would need to fight for the KOM points and deny Stemper.
"Otherwise there was no reason for us to have two guys up there," Kem explained. "If I can have my guy in the field saving energy while the other guys are out there chasing points, it's really good for him."
Baldwin wasn't surprised when he found out Stemper was upset and disappointed.
"I'm sure he is, but that's bike racing," the 38-year-old former national champion said. "It seems like a race within a race, and that's exactly what it is. We're racing against him for this jersey. For our team, this jersey is one of the highest objectives we could have, so if we can have it at the end it would be one of the best accomplishments of our year."
Jones, resplendent in his latest polka dot jersey and with each cheek showing the telltale lipstick traces of a another podium appearance, said he was proud of the team, and he was ready to reward his teammates' work with an all-out effort to keep the jersey through the end of the race.
"I'm psyched," he said. "I had full team support to scoop up the points, and now I'll be looking toward tomorrow and then the Diablo day for some more points to possibly lock it up. I'm recovering from the first day - that was a big effort - and I'm feeling better day to day. Hopefully I'll be able to score some points in the days coming up. That's the goal, and I definitely think it's doable. I just need to do it."
The Bissell rider now leads Cooper by seven points and Stemper by eight in the mountains classification. Beyer, Baldwin and UnitedHealthcare's Lucas Euser are all 13 points down. Thursday's 185.7 km stage offers just one opportunity for the KOM riders on the category 2 climb of San Marcos pass. Saturday's stage 7 will be the final chance for the climbers, with two early KOM spots and the category HC finish atop of Mt. Diablo.