Salas goes on the defensive to retain California's KOM jersey

The day's break included Sebastian Salas (Optum Pro Cycling), Wilson Alexander Marentes Torres (Colombia-Coldeportes) and Jeremy Vennell (Bissell).

The day's break included Sebastian Salas (Optum Pro Cycling), Wilson Alexander Marentes Torres (Colombia-Coldeportes) and Jeremy Vennell (Bissell). (Image credit: Jonathan Devich)

When the Amgen Tour of California rolls out of Palmdale Friday for the 186.3km stage ending with the climb to Big Bear Lake, 25-year-old King of the Mountains leader Sebastian Salas will get to spend at least one more day living his dream.

"All these guys I've seen over the last couple of years winning some of the biggest races in the world, and I'm up there beside them," said the second-year pro for Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies. "It's just unbelievable."

Salas jumped into the day's major breakaway on stage 1 and then grabbed the polka dot jersey from Spidertech-C10's David Boily on stage 3 when he got into his second breakaway of the race. He currently leads Boily, a fellow Canadian, by just eight points in the KOM battle. Garmin-Barracuda's Alex Howes is 24 points back.

"Coming into the race, I had some good performances at Joe Martin and the Gila," Salas said. "So I knew I had some good climbing legs coming in. Getting into that breakaway on the first stage was instrumental in getting the necessary points to get this jersey."

And now that Salas has the jersey with only two stages remaining that offer KOM points, he and his Optum team will be putting their all into keeping it for him through Sunday's final 72km jaunt from Beverly Hills to the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.

"Right now it's going to be a little bit more of a defensive game to try and get some more points tomorrow and the next day," he said. "My teammates have been so helpful 100 percent of the time, covering stuff and making sure I'm in position in case something goes up the road with Boily or someone else who's a threat to the jersey."

And if Salas doesn't make it into the breakaways, his teammates could also be there to help by getting in and trying to keep the points from his KOM rivals. "That's always one of the tactics that we can put into play either tomorrow or on Mt. Baldy," he said. "So we might be doing that."

It's all pretty heady stuff for the rider who said he only got into cycling three years ago after trying a few triathlons for fun. "I wasn't really training seriously for them," he said. "But just being on the bike and training on the bike -- I loved it. And so that's pretty much (how I got into cycling)."

Salas raced in 2010 with the the elite amateur H&R Block team out of British Columbia, the same year he set the record for the Grouse Grind, a 2.9 mile mountain trail run in Vancouver that had previously seen its best time set by former Olympian and two-time World Mountain Running champion Jonathan Wyatt of New Zealand. Salas returned in 2011 to set an even better unofficial time outside of the race. After that he competed in Colorado's USA Pro Challenge with Team Exergy, and then shortly thereafter signed with Optum for this season. Now his goals reach all the way across the pond to the European peloton.

"That opportunity would be amazing," he said. "But I still have a lot to learn and a lot of growing as an elite athlete. So I still have years of development."

In the meantime, Salas is focused on holding the polka dot top all the way to L.A.

"I'm going to give it 100 percent," he said. "And my team's 100 percent behind me, so we're going to do it. I've been dreaming about
it all week now. This is the biggest race I've ever done, and my legs have been recovering pretty good every day, so the jersey must be giving me something."

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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.