The first major GC shake-up at the Amgen Tour of California took place during stage 2 on a 214.5km route that took the peloton up to 2,627 metres of altitude and included nearly 4,500 metres of climbing.
Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Kasper Asgreen won the stage after six hours of racing, while EF Education’s First’s Tejay van Garderen grabbed the yellow jersey by six seconds ahead of Gianni Moscon (Team Ineos) and seven seconds over Asgreen.
The list of virtual winners and losers in the GC game is somewhat longer.
Of the pre-race GC favourites, Rally UHC’s Brandon McNulty came up worst on the day. The 21-year-old American was seventh at the Tour of California last year and recently won the overall at the Giro di Sicilia. In 2018, on a Tahoe course that was arguably more difficult than Monday’s stage, McNulty was an animator of the lead group and finished fourth on the stage.
Things were much different this year. McNulty struggled with the altitude and finished 57th, 8:07 behind Asgreen. He’s currently 48th overall at 8:13 and has seen his chances for another top result disappear. Rally UHC still have 34-year-old Canadian Rob Britton in the GC mix. Britton, who won the Tour of Utah in 2017, finished seventh on the stage, 27 seconds down on Asgreen, and is now sixth overall at 33 seconds.
The rest of the GC contenders fared better than McNulty, with most of them slotting into the top 18, separated by just 44 seconds.
Jumbo-Visma’s George Bennett appeared disappointed with his ride at Heavenly Resort in Tahoe. The 2017 overall winner was unable to go with the final selection when it took off but he kept his chances alive by crossing the line in 10th, at 31 seconds, and is now 10th overall, 36 seconds back. Bennett owes much of his current position to teammate Neilson Powless, who was in the lead group but sat up several times to help Bennett shut down the moves.
"I snuck in a few groups and was feeling good, but the main goal for this week is George, so I had to let go a few times to come back and try to shut down the move I was in because it was too dangerous," Powless told Cyclingnews after the stage.
"That was unfortunate for me and unfortunate for George as well, but I think George was still able to conserve a lot of energy today, which was really good. I think we’re really looking forward to the next few days."
Outside the top three, Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) kept himself in good shape for the GC by finishing fourth, just off the leaders’ pace at 10 seconds. He’s currently fourth overall at 16 seconds. Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) was fifth at 16 seconds and is now 22 seconds back in the GC. Astana’s Jonas Gregaard was sixth and currently is seventh overall at 33 seconds. Team Ineos’ David de la Cruz is eighth overall at 34 seconds, and Bora’s Felix Grosshartner is ninth at 25 seconds.
EF Education First also have Lachlan Morton in 11th at 36 seconds, while Richie Porte finished 15th on the stage and is currently 13th overall at 37 seconds. Porte’s former BMC teammate Rohan Dennis (Bahrain-Merida), who has twice finished second in California, is currently 17th overall at 47 seconds, and Katusha-Alpecin GC rider Simon Spilak is 18th at 44 seconds.
The big day for the overall classification is on Saturday, when the peloton takes on the Queen Stage and Mt. Baldy, but the next three stages before Baldy include a healthy dose of climbing that could favour breakaway riders and aggressive racing by teams looking to put the general classification under pressure.
"Baldy is the obvious one, but when you look at the course for this race, you don’t want to sleep on any of these days," van Garderen said in the post stage press conference.
"There’s always an opportunity to gain time, like we saw today. Tomorrow we go over Mt. Hamilton, and I think you guys remember what happened in that race in 2017. The race blew apart there. Then there’s a day when we go always along the coast, and there can be wind that day. Even though Baldy is the only real typical clear-cut GC day, you can never sleep on any stage.”
Near the middle of stage 3, the peloton will take on two climbs with a total of 25 switchbacks and two very technical descents. The race then returns to the eastern slopes of San Jose and into the finish in Morgan Hill.
Riders will then have a nice scenic trip along the Southern California coast from Laguna Seca to Morro Bay during stage 4. The 221.8km route includes more than 3,580 metres of elevation gain, however, across three categorised climbs. The 217.9km stage 5 from Pismo Beach to Ventura has five climbs and 2,950 metres of elevation gain on the San Marcos Pass and Casitas Pass climbs.
The Mt. Baldy stage is only 127km long but it includes another whopping dose of climbing and the race’s only true summit finish.
Baldy could be the last shot for the GC riders, but the final 141km final stage from Santa Clarita to Pasadena is no parade route. The stage includes two final climbs and 2,592 metres of elevation gain. The stage and overall race will close out with three laps around the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, where Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) stole the overall victory from Julian Alaphilippe on the final day in 2015 with a time bonus in the final sprint.
The bottom line for this year’s race is that although a couple pre-race contenders may have lost their chances for glory, most of the overall contenders are still very much in the hunt and have a lot of difficult racing ahead.