Friday's Tour of California stage 6 time trial in Folsom, the town Johnny Cash made famous with the song "Folsom Prison Blues," will offer a rematch of sorts for the riders who made the podium when the event held its race against the clock there two years ago.
Bradley Wiggins, riding for Team Sky in 2014, won the stage that day by 44 seconds over then-Garmin rider Rohan Dennis and 52 seconds over Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing). All three riders are back this year, with Dennis and Phinney both now on BMC and Wiggins riding for his Continental development team that carries his name.
Although in most situations Wiggins would be considered the favourite, Wiggins downplayed his chances to repeat the win there during the pre-race press conference last week, saying he hadn't ridden his time trial bike in 14 months. But it's difficult to count out the 2012 Olympic time trial champion and Tour de France winner in any race against the clock.
Wiggins has all-but retired from road racing, choosing to focus his Team WIGGINS efforts toward the track and another gold medal at the Rio Olympics in August. So far he hasn't cracked the top 100 on any of the stages, and he's currently 131st overall, more than an hour behind Alaphilippe.
Following the stage 5 finish at Lake Tahoe, a group of reporters hoping to ask Wiggins about Friday' stage waited for him to cross the line in the gruppetto, but Wiggins sailed by without slowing as he rode toward the team hotel.
Given Wiggins' focus away from the road, Dennis is going in as the favourite to win the race. So far he's been riding well and is currently seventh overall, just over a minute behind race leader Julian Alaphilippe. Dennis, who won the opening time trial at the Tour de France last year and led the race for a day, has several motivations to do well on Friday including taking his team's first stage win of the race, bolstering his overall chances and making an impression on Australia's Olympics selection committee.
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Phinney has been on a long and trying road since the 2014 race, suffering a severe leg injury just weeks later that required more than a year of recovery. He's back in the fold and has Friday's stage checked off on his calendar. He told Cyclingnews after stage 5 that he's looking forward to the rematch.
"I don't know if Wiggo is really up for it," he said. "I know Rohan is really up for it. I'm pretty tired, but I think everybody is pretty tired. This edition of the race has been a lot harder than in years past. But I feel pretty good.
"I would love to win. I'd love to be on the podium, but we've done some solid work here in the last couple of days, and today in particular."
Phinney also has Olympics selections on his mind, and a win in California followed by a win next week at the US championships would likely seal the deal.
But fellow American Andrew Talansky, the current US time trial champion, would also like to make an impression with the selection committee over the next several weeks. He's been riding well in California and is currently in 11th place 1:15 down on the Alaphilippe. So he's got multiple motivations as well.
"Today was an absolutely a hard day," he said after the stage 5 finish at Lake Tahoe. "Last time I was at altitude was at Tenerife, and that was about a month ago. So I definitely felt it a little bit. So considering that, I'm pretty pleased actually that I was able to respond to that last little acceleration in the final 500 metres because sometimes it's hit or miss when you've been out of altitude that long.
"So I'm pretty optimistic," he said. "Today was no means an easy day, and I'm excited about the TT tomorrow." Talansky will also get a little extra motivation from wearing the stars-and-striped kit of the national champion in the big US race.
"I'm really exited that's going to happen in California here at home," he said.
Current time trial world champion Vasil Kiryienka (Team Sky) is a major unknown factor in the stage. The 34-year-old from Belarus is a powerhouse diesel engine and the slightly rolling course in Folsom would appear to suit him, but a hard crash earlier this week may affect his performance. He's had a tough week in the climb-heavy 2016 race, finishing inside the top 100 just twice so far on stages 1 and 5.
Outside of the battle make the stage podium, all eyes will be on Julian Alaphilippe, who currently leads the general classification by 22 seconds over Trek-Segafredo's Peter Stetina and 37 seconds over George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo). BMC's Brent Bookwalter, no slouch in the time trial, is just 40 seconds back and has so far flown under the radar, as he often does. Laurens ten Dam (Giant-Alpecin) is fifth, at 49 seconds, and Axeon Hagens Berman youngster Nielson Powless, who recently won the time trial at the Redlands Bicycle Classic, is sixth, 1:01 behind.
There are plenty of riders stacked up behind Alaphilippe ready to take away his yellow jersey, but the calm Frenchman did not appear too concerned during the press conference following stage 5.
"I don't think too much about tomorrow," he said when Cyclingnews asked about his confidence level going into the race. "I just need to go 20km at full gas. It's not really my specialty; I'm not really prepared for that, so I take it day by day and I'm really happy to stay in yellow today. We will see after tomorrow, but for sure it is going to be really important for general classification."
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