Rainy Santa Rosa stage splits contenders from pretenders
With just two Amgen Tour of California stages behind, the Radioshack team has already poised itself to deliver captain Levi Leipheimer to his fourth consecutive Tour victory. He and team-mates Lance Armstrong, Chris Horner, Jani Brajkovic and Jose Luis Rubiera were all in a front group of 27 that contested the stage finish in Santa Rosa.
For Armstrong, the result was the kind of positive sign that he had hoped for following a doubt-filled early season. "[Armstrong] said he felt really good today. He didn’t have to do a big effort or an attack, but he felt comfortable when the selection was made which is a good sign," said Radioshack manager Johan Bruyneel.
The race's move to May hasn't completely eliminated cold, wet weather from the race, but the Radioshack team was able to use the rain on the second stage and some local knowledge of the finish town to position itself nicely for the general classification battle ahead.
On the 177.2km stage from Davis to Leipheimer's adopted home town of Santa Rosa, the team took control of the race, despite the overall lead being in the hands of the HTC-Columbia squad of stage one winner Mark Cavendish.
With the steep category two climb of Trinity Road placed just 33km from the finish, and a white-knuckled descent on twisty, poorly paved roads, a number of teams came to grief but Radioshack emerged unscathed to place five riders in the leading group of 27.
Experience with last year's even-worse weather and local knowledge helped the team negotiate the day and stay safely at the front. "Last year was worse it was every day and it was colder," said Bruyneel. "Today there were some parts where the roads were very slippery and there were a lot of crashes. I could feel that also the car slipped a few times in the downhill. I saw a lot of guys going down.
"It was good that the guys were in the front because they didn't have to take too many risks,” he added. “Before the stage we decided that today would be, especially in view of the forecast, a difficult stage to control and we assumed our role as the favourites of the race and we knew or predicted that anything that happened in the race everyone would look at us to do the work, which is what happened."
Before taking over the pace at the front, a half-hearted chase by HTC-Columbia had let the gap run out to a maximum of 6:40 minutes, but the team pitched in and then took control before it could get any larger. A surge by Yaroslav Popovych helped close the distance, and with the final climb approaching the splintering lead group was just under two minutes ahead. By the top of Trinity Road, there were only seconds separating the chasers from the front of the race, and five Radioshack riders placed near the front.
"The race came down to 27 riders, and we had five of those so that is a good situation," said Bruyneel.
While both Leipheimer and team-mate Lance Armstrong were pleased with the performance of the team and both felt strong on the climbs, the one part of the situation which was not very good was the damp cold that bit through to their bones.
"I saw a lot of riders who were really, really cold and had a lot of clothes on and they were shaking after the finish line," said Bruyneel. "That is what you get in the month of May, it doesn't feel as cold but the riders are really skinny and the cold goes right into their bones."