Predictions that the 2015 Tour of California would be decided in the final 7km climb to Mt. Baldy on Saturday fell flat after race leader Peter Sagan willed his way to the top of the fog-shrouded mountain, limiting his losses to stage winner Julian Alaphilippe, who took the over the race lead by a scant two seconds heading into Sunday's final stage.
The final 105.2km stage from Los Angeles to Pasadena looked on paper to be a typical final-day parade to a sprint finish, but with time bonuses likely deciding the outcome, the stage should be an old fashioned barn burner.
Time bonuses of three, two and one second will be on offer at the only intermediate sprint of the day 60km into the stage. Time bumps of 10, six and four seconds will go to the top three stage finishers.
Sagan's Tinkoff-Saxo team will no doubt be champing at the bit to bring home the overall win for the team leader, but Alaphilippe suggested that his Etixx-QuickStep team might have a different tactic for the finale.
"Of course tomorrow won't be easy to defend my position," the young Frenchman said. "There are intermediate time bonuses, and time bonuses at the finish line of the stage. It is clear Sagan is faster than me, so we will see tomorrow what will happen. I don't want to put pressure on myself for the GC."
In their only head-up sprint this week, Sagan nipped Alaphilippe for second place during the uphill field sprint on stage 3, won by Hincapie Racing's Toms Skujins. But Sunday's finish will be on a fast, flat circuit – the kind that favours Alaphilippe's teammate and three-stage winner Mark Cavendish.
"For the stage of tomorrow, I think we have to go with our original plan to try and win with Mark," Alaphilippe said. "He's won three stages already and is going really well. Then we will see if we can defend the yellow jersey. If not, it won't be the end of the world.
"We won four stages here so far out of seven," he said. "I had the best young rider jersey going into this stage, and Mark has the points jersey. So, we've already done plenty here and we are simply trying to add to what we've already accomplished."
It's anybody's guess whether Alaphilippe's passing of the leadership hat to Cavendish for Sunday's stage is a bluff. Would the team really throw in the towel on the overall – and their rising star – just to get another stage win for the Manx Missile, who has nearly 150 career wins?
Cavendish is obviously fond of the young Frenchman; when he finished on Baldy and rode his bike into the podium green room, Cavendish immediately gave Alahpilippe a big bear hug, patting his head and kissing him on the cheek. The green jersey is also up for grabs on Sunday. Sagan has won it five times in a row, but Cavendish currently leads the Tinkoff rider by six points.
One thing is certain, Sunday's finish in the shadow of the iconic Rose Bowl stadium is not likely to be the victory parade that organisers and the peloton anticipated. It's game on in Pasadena.
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