For the second consecutive day at the Tour of California, the sprinters' teams were thwarted in their attempt to deliver the race's fast men to the line to contend for the stage win.
Taylor Phinney (BMC) won stage 5 Thursday in Santa Barbara with a brilliant late move on the descent after the final climb of the day. During the stage 4 run into Cambria the previous day, a breakaway of six riders benefited Will Routley (Optum) who grabbed the win more than a minute ahead of the bunch.
Despite the final climb coming so near to the finish during Thursday's stage, the sprinters' teams were determined not to make the same mistake they made the day before.
"Yesterday was a really good opportunity, but we missed it," Giant-Shimano sprinter John Degenkolb told Cyclingnews on Thursday morning before the stage 5 start in Pismo beach. "Today is another opportunity, but it's not going to be an easy one. It's going to be a very tough stage."
The consensus among most of the teams and riders was that a group of 40-50 riders would come to the line to contest a selective bunch sprint.
"Maybe they will chase earlier and not take any serious risk of waiting too long," said UnitedHealthcare director Hendrik Redant. "So for that I think the break will get caught."
Redant's forecast about the break was accurate, but the finale played out much differently than expected.
The peloton did catch the breakaway of six riders, which included Phinney's BMC teammate Michael Schär, before the climb up San Marcos Pass about 26km from the finish. Then Cannondale and Team Sky pushed up the pace on the climb to try and drop some of the sprinters before the finish.
"We were trying to shell the other sprinters," said Cannondale's Ted King. "Besides Taylor, I think everything went to plan. Taylor just had a really nice day, and he's a strong guy. Hats off to him."
By the time Phinney jumped away on the final descent, Degenkolb and Omega Pharma-Quickstep's Mark Cavendish had been dropped from the group. Only Cannondale's Peter Sagan and Orica-GreenEdge were among the favorites left in the bunch.
"We were really hoping John could make it," said Giant-Shimano's Lawson Craddock. "But I think he got distanced right over the top. Then the descent was too fast and Phinney went, so they were chasing furiously behind. There was no chance for him to come back."
Schär said the day worked out exactly according to the plan BMC put in place during the team's meeting that morning.
"We wanted to have someone in the break to take pressure from the team in the back," he said. "And Taylor really wanted to survive the climb and then go for the win. He executed it perfectly. He took his advantage with his power, and his strength for the downhill is amazing. If you know where you're good, what is your strength, you really should take advantage of it and take wins like that."
Phinney, meanwhile, said having Schär in the break was crucial for his win.
"Having Mickey in the break meant that we didn't have to do any work all day," he said. "Cannondale asked us to help at one point, but with a guy in the breakaway, you know, we're set. We just had to sit in the wheels."
The 23-year-old from Boulder, Colorado, also credited his team's support and trust with boosting him over the line, even if he attacked quite a bit earlier than originally planned.
"I said from the beginning that I wanted to do well in this stage, and they just took care of me," Phinney said. "Larry Warbasse, Greg Van Avermaet and Thor Hushovd, especially, they just rallied around me, and it's always nice to have that. It's good for the confidence; you believe in yourself a little bit more when you have a team that believes in you.
"I'm sure that when I attacked on the top of the climb they were like, 'Oh, what is this idiot doing. He's ruining all this work that we did for him all day,'" Phinney said. "But it worked out in the end."