California GC Contenders aiming for Big Bear, Mt. Baldy

Only two riders among this year’s competitors at the Tour of California have previously finished on the final podium, and both tipped Team Sky’s Sergio Henao as the favourite to wear the yellow jersey when the race finishes next Sunday in Pasadena.

Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo), the 2012 overall winner, and Lawson Craddock (Giant-Alpecin), who was third last year, both said this week that the Colombian from Team Sky could be the man to beat this year.

“I think Sky has a good team again, like they always have,” Gesink said during Friday’s pre-race press conference in Sacramento. “Henao is a good time trial guy, and he’s from Colombia, so he can be good at altitude at Big Bear in the time trial, and also uphill he’s really strong. So he’ll be somebody we should look at.”

Gesink is the only returning champion in this year’s race, but his season was interrupted after the Volta ao Algarve in February because of a knee injury. He returned to racing at Fleche Wallonne, where he finished 25th. He followed that result with a 15th overall finish at the Tour de Romandie earlier this month.

“I think I did pretty well at Romandie after not racing for such a long time,” he said. “So it’s a bit of question where I’ll be at exactly for this race, but I think it might be good enough to be there on the front and play some cards for some nice success. I’m pretty confident that I’m heading in the right direction.”

When Gesink won the race in 2012, he did so on the strength of a solid time trial in Bakersfield and a late-race attack on Mt. Baldy that saw him drop all the competition and solo in for the stage win. The race returns to Baldy this year on a slightly different route.

“I think it’s a bit more climbing and a little bit harder, but for me that’s OK,” Gesink said. “I’m looking forward to this day and I hope to be good up there, for sure.”

Craddock, who finished third last year behind Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) and Rohan Dennis, who was riding for Garmin-Sharp at the time, would obviously like to build on last year’s result, but a crash at the Tour Down Under in January has slowed his season by several months.

He only returned to racing at the Volta a Catalunya in March. Most recently he was in the day-long breakaway during the final stage of the Tour de Yorkshire.

“I missed a pretty crucial time for training before then, but I think we’ve come back pretty well,” Craddock said. “My form has gone up every race I’ve done, and I kind of felt stronger and stronger. I had a good last day at Yorkshire, and I hope to build on that this week.”

California has been a special place for both Gesink and Craddock. Gesink took the jersey for best young rider three times before finally winning the overall, while Craddock’s breakout ride on Mt. Diablo in 2013 helped point him toward his current spot on Giant-Alpecin and his podium finish last year.

“It was a really special week for me last year,” said Craddock, who won the best young rider classification in 2013 and 2014. “My parents were able to come out and watch, and to be on the final podium in Thousand Oaks was really special. I’m just hoping to build on that and be a little more consistent throughout the year.”

For Gesink, who likes to rent a motor home for extended training in the US, the race has become a family affair.

“I’ve had my best results over here in America in California,” he said. “When I won the race it was really special moment for me. I had broken my leg the winter before, and it was the first result I could do after.

“I brought my family out here at that moment, and I did the same this year, so maybe it works. Then my daughter was still a few months old and I was able to bring her on the podium. Now I have a son, so maybe I can do the same with him in a couple of days.”

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Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.