Even with five riders within two minutes of the race lead, the Garmin-Cervélo team is on the defensive against the Amgen Tour of California leader Chris Horner (RadioShack). Horner won the first mountaintop finish in San Jose and now sits 1:15 ahead of three-time Tour champion and teammate Levi Leipheimer, while Garmin-Cervélo's Tom Danielson is next on the classification at 1:22.
Christian Vande Velde sits at 1:29, Ryder Hesjedal at 1:36 - gaps that team manager Jonathan Vaughters isn't sure they can make up - and now must try to break the RadioShack stranglehold without world champion Thor Hushovd.
The Norwegian abandoned the stage today, saying, "I haven't been feeling very well since I arrived, and today I just felt empty. I couldn't continue. I'm very disappointed to leave the team and the race. I would have liked to finish because the last day was a goal for me."
Vaughters is now looking for an opportunity to try and use his team's strength in numbers to crack Horner, but admits it won't be easy.
"It's tough, there aren't any medium mountain transitional stages that you need to go on the attack," Vaughters told Cyclingnews. "Saturday's stage is basically a mountain bike race on the road, and there's time trial and the last stage, neither of which give much opportunity.
The team came into the race with the intention to work for last year's runner up, David Zabriskie, but he lost almost five minutes on Horner on Wednesday's stage.
"Sometimes it doesn't always work out exactly as we planned. ... It's not always pre-programmed who's going to ride well" said Vaughters.
Zabriskie admitted to Cyclingnews that it wasn't the best stage for him, but he didn't plan on trying to go on the attack to make up the lost time on the stage to Paso Robles. "I don't think anything is going to make it to the line today, but we can definitely make it a hard race, so that's probably what we'll do," Zabriskie said.
Now Garmin-Cervélo has to try and break the race apart, and the clock is ticking down to just the time trial and the stage to Mt. Baldy on Saturday as the real opportunities to gain time.
"We have five guys we can play cards with," said Vaughters. "Obviously Horner's the strongest guy in the race, so we have to see if we can tactically leverage it so that we make it difficult for him."
"In a way the Mt. Baldy stage [could be an opportunity], but then again that's tricky. It's such a 'legs win' situation. We'll have to see. If the difference were just seconds, I would say we have a real strong possibility but 1:15? Maybe not."
On Wednesday's stage, the team tried to set up Hesjedal for the stage win by sending world champion Thor Hushovd ahead in a breakaway, but Vaughters said that RadioShack caught onto their tactic right away. After all, it's a tactic RadioShack manager Johan Bruyneel has used in the past at the Tour de France: send a guy up the road to be there for an attacker bridging from behind on the climb.
"Had [RadioShack] ridden more of a tempo than a flat out chase, and the break had time at the top of Mt. Hamilton, Ryder would have connected with Thor, and Thor is one of the best descenders in the world. If he had taken Ryder into bottom of the climb with two minutes instead of the one minute he had, things would have been different."
Look for the team to take a different tactic on Saturday.