The second stage of the Amgen Tour of California on paper should have been a day for a small group of climbers with good descending skills, but in reality came down to a surprisingly big bunch sprint, with some 60 riders making the mad dash to the line in Aptos after 188.5km. The stage was won again by race leader Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale), who survived another crash, flat tire and near-miss with a team car to extend his lead in the general classification.
The stage went largely to script on the 113km run down the coast from San Francisco, although the day's first breakaway of two riders was nullified because Argos-Shimano's Alexandre Geniez refused to work with Tom Zirbel (Optum Pro Cycling) because the duo stood no chance of staying clear. According to the day's most courageous rider Jeremy Vennell (Bissell), "Liquigas would have had a very easy day riding against two guys, so we decided to attack them, and I went across to those guys with four riders."
Vennell's group formed a six-rider breakaway which up to ten minutes before the peloton woke up and started giving chase.
"We rode conservatively because we knew the teams behind would ride harder if we rode harder," the New Zealander said. "It was a cat and mouse game all the way to the bottom of the first climb on Bonny Doon."
Geniez then attacked the breakaway on Empire Grade and while he was later caught, he earned the day's most aggressive rider jersey.
As Garmin-Barracuda took to the front of the peloton on the category 1 climb of Empire Grade, they served to whittle away at Geniez's lead, but rather than a vicious pace breaking up the bunch, it was a minor crash which included the race leader Sagan that served to temporarily split the lead peloton. He took a few moments to get up from the pavement and set to chasing back to the group, which eased further once word reached the front that the yellow jersey had crashed.
One rider who ended up chasing alongside Sagan was Rabobank's Laurens Ten Dam, who couldn't understand why there weren't more attacks on the climbs today. "It was a race with not so many attacks. I don't know why, we could have broken it up more but I think Horner is saving his bullets. If there are still 80 guys in the bunch I'm not going to attack. The Liquigas guys were still there, and everybody knows they're going to chase if we attack."
Defending champion Chris Horner (Radioshack-Nissan) was also surprised that the pace up the climbs was mild, but he also wasn't going on the attack today. "I thought we'd go a little faster up the climbs than we did. In past years we did 150 watts more than we did today. But, if a sprinter's got the jersey and can win in a group of 40 or 120 they only need to go as fast as their sprinter can go up the climb. So that was kind of how we handled it."
There was a brief bit of panic for some riders who found the descent off Empire Grade down Jamison Creek Road to be a white-knuckle affair. Horner wasn't caught out, but a large group had to chase back to the front before the final climb as riders were surprised by some of the tight bends. "The most dangerous part was the downhill in between the two climbs, maybe there was only 25 guys in the front group or something like that. All the favorites missed that, but there were a lot of teams in the back rotating to bring it back together. Then we just did the next climb pretty easy."
According to local hero Ben Jacques-Maynes, easy is a relative term. "Bear Creek Road was pretty tame, I thought. I think being a brand new climb, these guys hadn't ridden it before and they didn't know it leveled off so much at the top, so I was pretty happy they rode it so slowly. Having said that, it was still the fastest I've ever gone up it."
Tomorrow's stage from San Jose to Livermore, 185.5km long and heading up part of Mt. Diablo at the mid-point has a tough little climb with 15km to go of Patterson Pass. Will the proximity to the finish finally be the undoing of Sagan, or will the Slovak champion net his third straight Tour of California stage?