Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-QuickStep) may not have won the overall title at the Tour of California, but he was pleased at have walked away with a stage victory, the green points jersey and third overall. The versatile rider from Denmark stood on the final podium behind winner Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Sergio Higuita (EF Education First) in Pasadena on Saturday after what he called an unexpected week of racing in the US.
"It's amazing to have the green jersey," Asgreen said in the post-race press conference at the Rose Bowl Stadium on Saturday. "This week has been way more than I expected, and so I'm really happy with what I was able to do here."
The race – which has traditionally attracted the peloton's fastest sprinters – was one of the toughest editions in its 14-year history. The route covered almost 21,000 metres of elevation gain, with 25 categorised ascents, along with a summit finish on Mt. Baldy. In addition, there were four stages over 200km.
Early in the race, on stage 2, Asgreen formed part of a select group that finished in a sprint in South Lake Tahoe. He won the stage ahead of Tejay van Garderen (EF Education First) and Gianni Moscon (Team Ineos). It was one of the hardest stages, with 4,500 metres of climbing. The stage topped out at 2,627 metres of elevation at Carson Pass – the highest point the Tour of California has ever climbed.
It was also Asgreen's first-ever victory on the WorldTour, having only signed with Deceuninck-QuickStep as a trainee last August.
"It's my first pro win, so I'm really, really happy right now," he told reporters in South Lake Tahoe. "It's huge for me, and to take it on a stage like this – a really hard stage – I'm really happy with that."
Van Garderen took the overall race lead in South Lake Tahoe ahead of Moscon, while Asgreen hovered close behind in third place, just seven seconds back. The GC remained in that order until stage 4, when Asgreen was initially announced as the new overall leader after van Garderen and Moscon were caught up behind a crash that happened outside of 3km to go in Morro Bay. They finished almost a minute down.
After a lengthy deliberation, race officials decided that van Garderen and Moscon should be given the same finish time as Asgreen, who was not involved in the accident, citing the UCI's '3km rule', where riders caught up in crashes inside the final 3km are given the same time as the group that they were part of at that time. The ruling was seen as controversial because the accident happened just outside of 3km to go.
The decision put van Garderen back in the overall lead ahead of Moscon, and so bumped Asgreen back down into third. Deceuninck-QuickStep director Patrick Lefevere criticised the UCI jury after they overturned the results from stage 4, which took his rider – Asgreen – out of the overall lead.
Asgreen remained aggressive through the remaining stages. He finished fifth on stage 5 in Ventura and sixth on stage 6 on Mt. Baldy, where van Garderen wasn't able to stay with the select climbers. Pogačar won the decisive mountain-top finish and took the overall lead, with Higuita moving up to second and Asgreen holding onto third.
He tried one last time, on stage 7 from Santa Clarita to Pasadena, bridging across to the breakaway in the closing stages of the race, but the main field came back together, and Cees Bol (Sunweb) won the bunch sprint.
"I took the opportunity today, and attacked on the descent," Asgreen said. "Otherwise, I didn't see many other opportunities [to move ahead in the GC]."
Asgreen, 24, made up a final podium, with Pogačar and Higuita, of up-and-coming talents. Together they had an average age of just 21 years old.
"I think there's just a really good, young generation coming up now," said Asgreen. "It's special that this generation is starting to get results, and I think we've seen that in Europe as well over the last few months."
Asgreen has had a strong season, and showed his versatility with second place at the Tour of Flanders in April behind winner Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First). Combined with his stage win at South Lake Tahoe and third place overall at the Tour of California, it suggests that he has a big future in the sport.
He told the press that he hopes to continue along the same trajectory, developing his talent on the climbs and in stage races while putting a primary focus on the Classics.
"I hope I can keep developing in the Classics because I loved those races this year," Asgreen said. "I hope I keep developing there. Of course, I will have to see how it goes with the rest of the year. The Classics are only six weeks of the season, and so I need to set some goals for the rest of the year, too.
"Maybe for the future some of the goals will be in the stage races. Now I'll go home and evaluate this week and see if this is something that I can try to pursue in future."