The second day for the general classification riders at the Amgen Tour of California saw the yellow jersey change hands again as the anticipated time trial showdown between overnight race leader Egan Bernal (Team Sky) and pre-stage favourite Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) played out in the American's favour.
Van Garderen won the stage over teammate Paddy Bevin by seven seconds, and over Bernal's Sky teammate Tao Geoghegan Hart by 32. More importantly, he put 1:23 into Bernal on the stage, and now leads the 21-year-old Colombian by 23 seconds in the overall classification.
EF Education First-Drapac's Dani Martinez finished 10th, 57 seconds back, and moved into third overall. The 22-year-old Colombian is now 37 seconds behind van Garderen, while Geoghegan Hart moved up to fourth overall at 52 seconds.
Both Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) lost time and slipped off the general classification podium to fifth and sixth, respectively. Rally Cycling's Brandon McNulty, meanwhile, suffered a puncture on the course but still put in a good enough ride to move from 12th overall to seventh, now trailed by Laurens De Plus (Quick-Step Floors) in eighth, Kristijan Durasek (UAE Team Emirates) in ninth and Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing) in 10th.
The top five are now separated by just 1:07, while Bookwalter, in 10th, is 2:34 behind teammate van Garderen overall. The next big test for the GC men will come on Friday when they take on the 196.5km monster climbing stage from Folsom to South Lake Tahoe. The route, with a finish at altitude, includes six categorised climbs before the final category 3 kicker to the line.
A strong team
Van Garderen will be relying heavily on his BMC teammates to protect the overall lead, believing they have the strongest roster in the race.
"I think Tahoe is going to be a big test of the strength of the team, and I think we have one of the strongest, if not the strongest, team here," van Garderen said in the post-stage press conference on Wednesday. "They'll be able to control it, and then when we get to the upper slopes of the final climb, I'm going to have to stick with the climbers' wheels."
Van Garderen is counting on Friday's final climb being easier than the ascent of Gibraltar Road on stage 2, where Bernal put 50 seconds into van Garderen on top of collecting a 10-second time bonus for winning the stage.
"The altitude may play a factor," van Garderen said, "but I've lived in Colorado and I was born in Montana. I'm no scrub when it comes to altitude. So I think I should be able to handle that OK. For sure, there's going to be loads of attacks from all the guys who want to take this jersey, but as far as motivation goes, I'm probably the most motivated guy to keep it."
BMC directeur sportif Jackson Stewart told Cyclingnews that van Garderen's 23-second buffer means Bernal can't win the overall by simply collecting the time bonus for winning the stage; he'll have to drop van Garderen and put some time into him again at Tahoe.
"Now we have seconds to spare for a bonus and things like that, which we were nervous about," Stewart said. "I thought if we did get the lead, it would be a few seconds and then we'd have to worry about the bonus. We've got the team for it, and Tejay's done this before. Now we've got the motivation, too, and good morale, so it'll be great. We're stoked."
Bevin said so far this week the team's game plan has mostly played out to script, and now the team and van Garderen are ready to finish it off.
"We'll step up over the next three stages and do our jobs we came here to do, and race for the win when we finish in Sacramento," he said.
That's BMC's plan, but Team Sky will have something to say about it, while EF Education First-Drapac is now in a position to pounce with Martinez. Mitchelton-Scott is still in the running with Yates only 1:07 back, and Bora has Majka well-placed, too, at 1:29. All of them are in play and will be ready to challenge van Garderen and BMC on Friday.
All to play for
"We're going to have to work with some other teams and see what their tactics are," Team Sky directeur sportif Ollie Cookson told Cyclingnews. "But I think there's all to play for, and it's going to make for an exciting race for the public. Of course, we'd still like to be in the leader's jersey, but we're not too far off, so we've now got a day to compose ourselves and look at how we go into that Lake Tahoe stage.
"I think we're still in a strong position, and there's the time bonus to consider as well," Cookson said. "With the stage being at altitude, does it play into our hands? I think it does, yeah, a little bit. We've got Tao Geoghegan Hart and Sebastian Henao, so we've got some strong riders who can perform at altitude, and of course Egan."
On the stage 2 route with its finish at the top of Gibraltar Road, Team Sky set up Bernal to attack in the last 2km of the final climb, but Cookson said the team could try a different tactic on Friday. And with Geoghegan Hart just 52 seconds behind van Garderen, Sky have a couple of options. Will they go for the long attack or wait for the final climb again in Tahoe?
"That's a very good question," Cookson said. "You can try both tactics. I think the other day our plan was to wait until the last 2km and do the big strong attack and make it hard before then – literally to distance Tejay van Garderen. That was that tactic then. What will we do on the Lake Tahoe stage? We need to see how Egan feels. You know, we've got one more day before that, and then we'll work out what we're going to do."
Geoghegan Hart told Cyclingnews he's expecting fireworks on Friday.
"I really hope so," he said. "The fans here always deserve that. This year they've planned a great stage, because last time it was a bit of an anti-climax, so it's nice to see a stage in which everyone will be aggressive. With only a flat day to go in Sacramento, everyone will leave it on the line and we'll see what happens."