After seeing his race lead cut in half during the stage 3 finishing climb of Mt. Diablo, things played out quite differently for Tour of California race leader Bradley Wiggins and his Team Sky mates during the climb to the stage 6 finish at Mountain High.
Unlike the climb up Diablo, where Wiggins was isolated early and ended up losing 20 seconds to Garmin-Sharp's Rohan Dennis, the Team Sky leader never needed to put his nose in the wind Friday until the closing kilometers to the ski station that hosted the stage 6 finish.
Sky's Ian Boswell, Nathan Earle and Luke Rowe kept the day's breakaway, which included two riders that were less then four minutes down on general classification, in check for most of the day. As the bunch started the 20km climb to the finish, Wiggins had Danny Pate, Christian Knees, Josh Edmondson and Joe Dombroswki setting tempo for him in a lead group that contained all the major GC threats.
“Once again the three guys rode the whole day to keep the break at four minutes, and then on the last climb from Danny Pate and Christian Knees to young Josh and then Joe at the end there, it was an incredible team effort throughout the day to put me in that position with a kilometer to go to wind it up to the line," Wiggins said.
Wiggins finished fifth, 53 seconds behind stage winner Esteban Chaves of Orica-GreenEdge. But more importantly, he finished in front of GC threats Dennis, Lawson Craddock (Giant-Shimano) and Tiago Machado (team NetApp-Edura), actually adding to his buffer.
Dennis, who now trails Wiggins by 30 seconds, said the difference between stage 3's near disaster for Sky and the team's more successful effort on Friday came down to pacing and not panicking when other riders went up the road.
“They rode a better tempo on the climb today,” Dennis said. “They didn't overreach themselves, and they really rode it to perfection. We did everything we could to put the pressure on them, and they didn't take the bait at all. So hats off to them.”
Garmin-Sharp had Tom Danielson, who started the day 4:39 down on Wiggins, in the daylong breakaway that got away about 40 minutes into the four-hour race. In the reduced peloton going up Mountain High, the team had Dennis, Ben King and Janier Acevedo to throw into the mix. Both King and Acevedo tried to jump away from the group as it approached the finish, hoping to draw out Wiggins' support men and burn them up early.
Dombrowski, who, along with Edmondson were the final support riders for Wiggins on Diablo, said they pushed themselves too hard too early on the stage 3 uphill finish.
“The beginning of the [Diablo] climb has got some rollers and some downhills, so you can be doing 450 watts on the front and the guys behind are coasting,” he said. “ And then once we finally hit the climb, Brad was isolated. Ultimately we saw that he was so strong it was fine, but normally we wouldn't want to leave him alone for so long.”
The lessons learned on Diablo were put into practice on Mountain High.
“You saw Acevedo went up the road fairly early on,” Dombrowski said. “So I think for us we know that those big accelerations these guys make a ways out from the finish – you know it's been super hot all week, we're at altitude – and that's just not sustainable. So you just need to not get too excited and ride within yourself. Ultimately, you're going to pull them back, so just be patient.”
Edmondosn said the plan the team discussed during the morning meeting before the stage played out exactly as anticipated, with he and Dombroswki taking up the final support roles while Wiggins talked them through it.
“It's important for him that we don't panic,” Edmondson said. “Say Rohan would have attacked, and we start sprinting after him and we blew and then [Wiggins] is isolated. He says a lot to keep us calm on the climbs, which helps. I think we were pretty good today, really. I wasn't panicked and we had Joe there, and he's climbing really well. Brad can handle himself, obviously, so we weren't too worried.”
Wiggins' teammates will need to protect their leader over two more stages, starting with the stage 7 ride from Santa Clarita to Pasadena today. The stage includes a category 3 climb and another category 2 ascent. The Tour of California concludes Sunday on a difficult-but-short circuit around Thousand Oaks outside of Los Angeles.
Anything can happen on those days, so team Sky will need to remain vigilant, but Wiggins said the main obstacles in the tour have are now behind them.
“Today was the one, really, that you don't necessarily fear, but you know that that's going to be the one,” he said of the Mountain High stage. “The job's not done, but we're 90 percent there. We've just got to get through the next two days now and not lay our heads down too much and focus again and really finish the job off.”