It was a case of close but no cigar for Orica GreenEdge in their first race in the United States – the Amgen Tour of California, with Leigh Howard sprinting to fourth place on the opening stage in Santa Rosa won by Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale).
"It was a solid start," said Orica GreenEdge sports director, Neil Stephens on GreenEdge.com. "Everyone is really happy to be racing here. We have a lot to gain from this race, and we're looking for every opportunity we can take."
Howard not only avoided being caught up in the crash with three kilometres left to race in the 186.5km stage, but also finished with a cracked rim which was caused as the peloton navigated over the train tracks around 800 metres from the finish line.
"As soon as the team saw that Leigh had made it over the final climb, they were all in it for him at the finish," explained Stephens. "We had five riders in the front group – Cameron [Meyer], Pieter [Weening], Wes [Sulzberger], Luke [Durbridge] and Leigh – and they combined together to do a really good lead out.
"We were well-poised for a good result," noted Stephens. "We're happy with fourth place, but we can't help but wonder what would have happened if Leigh hadn't hit the railroad track the way he did."
The Coleman Valley Road climb spelled the beginning of the end for day's break, with Garmin-Barracuda, Liquigas-Cannondale and Rabobank driving the chase. The pace of the peloton did have its challenges for Orica GreenEdge though.
"We knew the challenges associated with this climb, so we had our guys positioned well leading up to it," said Stephens. "Travis Meyer and Matt Wilson spent all of their energy putting their teammates into position, and their work was done at the base of the climb. Robbie [McEwen] lost contact with the bunch ahead of the summit. Just over the top of the climb, from what I understand from the boys, Leigh was slightly off the back. Luke dropped back and got him. They were two of the last riders to regain contact with the main bunch ahead of the finish."
General classification hope Cameron Meyer finished in 16th position, 10 seconds back on GC along with Pieter Weening, Luke Durbridge, Wes Sulzberger. Matt Wilson and Robbie McEwen are at 7:06, while Travis Meyer is at 11:58.