Team Sky rode like a juggernaut Saturday at the Tour of California, taking control of the 128km Queen stage that ended at the top of Mt. Baldy after more than 3,500 metres of climbing. At the end of the day, however, it was Etixx-QuickStep's Julian Alaphilippe who came away with the stage win and the race's yellow jersey, leading former race leader Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) by just two seconds in the overall.
The young Frenchman rode away from a select lead group after Sky's pace over the final 35km decimated what remained of the field. With Alaphilippe up the road solo, Sky riders Sergio Henao and Ian Boswell had to settle for second and third, respectively.
The day started with a 20km climb to the first KOM of the day on Glendora Ridge. A lengthy, fast descent followed before another 15km climb up Glendora Mountain Road. The race headed to Mt. Baldy Village, where the peloton encountered the biggest obstacle of the day in he switchback-laden ascent to the summit.
The riders ascended no less than 10 switchbacks over the next 4.5km. The final five switchbacks came in the next half kilometre.
"We had to take it on pretty early because Tinkoff wanted to keep it under control for Sagan and not make it too difficult," Boswell said after the stage. "But those guys who do the work before the cameras came on: Xabier [Zandio], Nathan Earle and Danny Pate really were impressive today."
The trio of workers were dropped by the first KOM, by they chased back to the group on the descent and immediately went back to the front to work for the team.
Christian Knees took over next, and the big German further whittled the field down to about 30 riders as the peloton approached Baldy for the second and final time. Deignan took over at the base of the mountain, eventually passing the baton to Boswell.
"Pete [Kennaugh] said to keep it steady," Boswell said of his turn at the front. "I felt good, so I was just riding what I felt was a steady pace. I looked back and there were like five guys left. Then Sergio went."
Henao jumped clear of the pack with 5.5 kilometres to go and was immediately followed by Alaphilippe. The QuickStep rider withstood Henao's accelerations, and the dropped the Colombian in the final kilometres.
In the race behind, Boswell continued to motor on, but he had some company in Cannondale-Garmin's Joe Dombrowski and needed to be careful not to bring anyone back up to Henao when he turned up the pace again.
"I waited for a bit because I didn't want to bring Joe across.," Boswell said. "Once I saw Joe was hurting, I thought I'd go up and try and help Sergio, but at the end it's kind of hard to do anything when it's that steep."
Alaphilippe soloed across the line for the win and the overall lead, while Henao and Boswell came in 23 seconds later.
"Unfortunately we didn't win the race overall," Boswell said. "But I think it's impressive to see Sergio doing what he's doing after his crash less than a year ago. They weren't even sure if he was going to be able to race again.
"I don't know how we could have played it any different," Boswell said. "We gave it our best."
Their best was good enough to move Henao into third overall, 33 seconds behind Alaphilippe and 31 seconds behind Sagan. Boswell moved up to seventh, 1:19 down.
Sky team director Servais Knaven said Alaphilippe's performance was worthy of the win and the race lead.
"You have to say hats off to Alaphilippe today," Knaven said. "He was the strongest guy and he showed that on the final mountain. We had Sergio and Ian up there but he did a really strong ride."
With just two seconds separating Alaphilippe and Sagan heading into Sunday's finale in Pasadena, the race around the Rose Bowl should be interesting.
"Sergio is third on GC now, and we want to keep that of course," Knaven said. "It's going to be a nice battle up front for the GC win tomorrow, so we'll look forward to that."