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For a while it looked like three-time world champion Oscar Friere had ridden away from the break and into victory.
The peloton explains the ins and outs of their longest day
Everyone expected a long day on Thursday’s 217 kilometer stage between Seaside and Paso Robles. The course ran over undulating terrain and, though it was never especially technical, the road constantly twisted and turned. The weather changed from the previous days’ rain to warm and dry, and riders reached the finish with their kits crusted with salt.
"It was definitely hot today, you see a lot of salt on guys," commented Brad White of UnitedHealthcare after the stage. "It has to do with the length of the day, and the heat. The start was really really hard. All the big teams were more motivated than I thought to get into the break."
Rabobank in particular wanted to show their jersey today. The finish line in Paso Robles sat directly in front of one of the bank’s offices.
Two separate breakaways formed in the early kilometers of the stage, and nearly 40 kilometers of racing unfolded before the day’s break went up the road for good. RadioShack chose to keep the break on a short leash, because Chris Baldwin of Bissell made the junction. Baldwin started the day at 4:30 behind RadioShack’s Chris Horner in the general classification.
Baldwin continued Team Bissell’s streak of making the breakaway each day, but he found the stage rough going. "I don't think I'm going to be able to walk for three days," he said. "It was just insane. Every year they just make this race more challenging. It's a death march, it's like pretty hard, maybe harder than it needs to be."
White meanwhile, was the last rider to make it across. "I was going across with Jeff Louder and a Leopard-Trek guys, and about a kilometer from the top of the KOM, they just wacked it and got across, and I couldn't follow them," the United Healthcare rider explained. He remained suspended between the break and the field.
"I told myself if I don't catch them before the descent, I'm going back to the field, and then, I was kind of 20 meters from the back of their cars most of the time, I knew if I could get over the climb, I could get into the cars and get back on. [There were] not very good thoughts in my mind in no-man's land. If I hadn't caught them by the bottom, I would have gone back to the field."
Behind the break, RadioShack kept tight control on the field, and U.S. National Champion Ben King spent much of the day riding tempo on the front, explaining: "It was really hard, it was mostly me and Jason [McCartney] and one Liquigas guy for over 200 km."
Chris Horner, who arrived safely in the field in Paso Robles, credited his team with "a big ride today." The 10-rider break never achieved more than a 3:30 gap, and for much of the day it held under 3:00. "The break was a bit large, and so of course it's a lot of work," the veteran said. "There was a cross-tail wind all day, so there was no free ride in the bunch. I don't think anyone got a better ride than Levi and myself. We had a great team looking after us."
Though the sprinters eventually had their day in Paso Robles, Oscar Freire tried his best to ruin their chances. The three-time World Champion went with the break today, and attacked on the way to the final climb on Interlake Road. Freire nearly survived to the line.
"With two riders, it would have been easier to stay away," the Spaniard conceded. "In the last climb, I lost almost 40 seconds. If we were together there was a good chance to survive. The peloton was always controlling the gap. I knew there wasn't a good chance to arrive, but when you're in the break you have to try. I almost won, but in the last 3 kilometers, I saw the peloton and they were stronger."
Only fifty riders made the final sprint, and the field caught Freire close to the finish. Team Sky tried to set up Ben Swift for another stage victory, but he could not repeat his earlier success.
"It was a tough sprint," he recounted. "It was a hard day, and we were starting to run out of men toward the end. So I had to let a few people in, Leigh Howard and then Daniel Oss. I was hoping Sagan would come through, but he stayed behind. Unfortunately, I had to get around Oss's lead-out man before I could contest for the sprint. It was a good race, and a fantastic lead-out by Hayman and Henderson, and it was unfortunate I couldn't pull it off."
Leigh Howard contested the sprint for HTC-Highroad, after Matthew Goss decided with around 40 kilometers to go that he did not have the legs for the win. Howard finished second, after winding up his sprint early. "I got caught on the front a bit too early, and I had to open up at about 300 meters to go," the 21-year-old Australian, who has won multiple World Championship titles on the track, admitted. "They just caught me with about 20-30 meters to go. I'm really happy with my sprint, but I'm really disappointed not to win."
For Peter Sagan, the hard racing in the finale worked to his advantage. "In the last kilometers, we thought the group would break up more than it did," he explained. "In the end, it was still a good-size group, and there was some confusion with the number of sprinters still in the race. Fortunately, I was a little less tired than the other sprinters in the group," said the happy winner. "I'd like to thank my teammates, without their work, this win wouldn't have been possible."