Tejay van Garderen's hopes for a second Amgen Tour of California win nearly came crashing down along the Pacific Coast outside of Morro Bay on Wednesday at the end of stage 4 when the race leader hit the deck with 7km to go and ended up finishing nearly a minute down on stage winner Fabio Jakobsen (Deceuninck-QuickStep).
The race jury ruled that a second crash that occurred just outside the final 3km, which also took down overall runner-up Gianni Moscon (Team Ineos), had hindered van Garderen's return to the bunch and so awarded him the same time as the winner, preserving his overall lead by six seconds over Moscon and seven seconds over stage 2 winner Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-QuickStep).
"The mass crash near the finish of stage 4 was just outside 3km to go," the race jury said in their official ruling. "The commissaires have decided to treat the crash such that all riders affected by the incident and the road blockage will receive the field time."
The 214.5km stage went to plan for EF Education First up until van Garderen's crash. A breakaway of non-GC threats went up the road early and was kept in check by EF and then by the sprinters' teams that were looking for the stage win. The team had conserved energy and looked well-placed going into the finale when van Garderen hit the deck.
"There was a lot of swarming, people were making position, and there was a touch of wheels," van Garderen told NBC Sports after the stage and subsequent delay while the jury deliberated. "I hit the front brake to try not to cross over the wheel, and I just kind of endoed. I can't say it was anyone's fault. We ride pretty close, and sometimes things happen."
EF teammate Lachlan Morton immediately gave van Garderen his bike to replace his team leader's disabled machine, but van Garderen's troubles continued when he crashed once more in a corner during the chase.
"I just know that he was basically on his way back, but he was on Lachlan's bike, and Lachlan has his brakes the opposite way around, so I think he had a problem in a corner after that," EF Education First director Charly Wegelius told Cyclingnews while still under the impression that van Garderen had lost the jersey.
"And then, of course, there was a crash later and Moscon was in it, and that impeded him as well. It was a pretty bad combination of events. But that's bike racing," Wegelius said.
Morton, also talking with Cyclingnews before the jury ruling that favoured van Gardren was handed down, said he didn't really see what happened with van Garderen once he had given the team leader his bike and van Garderen rode away.
"I gave him my bike and he was on his way," the Australian climber said. "It seemed like that was the quickest thing to do. I don't know if they barraged him or what. It's just a bit shit. Crashes happen, but it's disappointing for him. Crashes happen, but we'll come back."
Van Garderen, who had blood running down his left leg from several scrapes on his knee, initially declined to talk to reporters outside the team bus, as EF Education First staff asked media and fans to respect his privacy and his wife gave him a pep talk before they knew about the jury's favourable decision. When the jury decided to give van Garderen the same time as the lead group, thus preserving his race lead, he emerged from the team bus and spoke with the television broadcaster.
"When they told me I was back in yellow, I was surprised," van Garderen said. "I mean, I understand because we were chasing back and I thought we would have gotten back had that other crash not impeded us. I just thought it was bad luck, but I guess they decided to give us the time from the crash because we were just about to get back on. I have to applaud their decision. Sometimes the cards fall your way, sometimes they don't."
Now, with three stages remaining, the 2013 overall winner in California maintains the lead he established on the stage 2 ride to South Lake Tahoe.