Following the general classification showdown on Mt. Baldy on stage 5, the overall battle at the 2017 Tour of California will pick up again Friday with the individual time trial in Big Bear Lake on the penultimate day.
The 24km out-and-back course is pancake flat and fairly straightforward, but with Big Bear at more than 2,000 metres of altitude, this race against the clock has an added challenge.
With his stage win on stage 5 and his past accomplishments in the discipline, 2015 US time trial champion Andrew Talansky has to be the favourite for the win. The big question is whether he can claw back enough time on Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), who is currently 44 seconds ahead, to claim the race lead.
Talansky is currently one spot off the podium in fourth, 38 seconds behind runner-up George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) and 19 seconds behind third-placed Ian Boswell (Team Sky).
Of the top five, including Lachlan Morton (Dimension Data), Talansky has the best results in the race against the clock, but he's not taking anything for granted on Friday against Majka.
"Rafal is a great time trialist," Talansky said at the stage 5 post-race press conference. "You've seen the rides he's done in the Vuelta, the Giro and the Tour. You can't underestimate that.
"They call it the race of truth," Talansky said. "Tomorrow I have no doubt we'll both go out there and give everything we have, and whoever ends up on top, ends up on top. But I don't think by any means can you underestimate what Rafal can do tomorrow."
Perhaps the second best time trial within reach of the general classification lead is fellow American Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing), who is currently sixth, one minute down on Majka. Bookwalter's recent time trial pedigree includes fifth in the 2016 Tour of California time trial in Folsom and fourth in the 2016 Vuelta a Andalucia TT.
"I think we're all within in a minute, so all it takes is one of those other guys being off and me being superb, and I'm right in there," Bookwalter told Cyclingnews at the top of Mt. Baldy.
"I actually haven't done an individual time trial yet this year," the BMC rider admitted. "We got the team win in the team time trial in Catalunya, so I can't imagine suffering more than that. If I can replicate that intensity and effort on my own, I'll be doing pretty good."
Bennett is certainly no slouch in the race against the clock, having finished 10th earlier this year in the Pais Vasco stage 6 time trial.
The 27-year-old Kiwi is heading into Friday's test with a nice dose of confidence after riding well in this week's two toughest stages so far, although his gap over Talansky looks fragile.
"Talansky and Brookwalter are still within reach, and I think I'm faster than the two young boys [Morton and Boswell], but Majka is an unknown quantity to me," Bennett said. "In fact, I don't think I've raced him head to head in a TT. I got my first top 10 in a WorldTour last race, but that also had a 15 minute mountain in it, and it's a pancake out there tomorrow.
"It's not really my forte, but it's not like I'm trying to beat [reigning world champion] Tony Martin or something like that," Bennett said. "I need more time than I have over Talansky. I'd need a minute and a half, minimum."
Despite all the talk about favourites and past accomplishments among the contenders, Majka, who recently spent time in a wind tunnel and rode his TT bike on the trainer on Mt Baldy immediately after the press conference, is in the driver's seat. The race is his to win or lose Friday in Big Bear.
Nevertheless, the 27-year-old Pole, who has won three stages in the Tour de France and was third last year at the Rio Olympic Road Race, appeared relaxed and confident at the top of Mt. Baldy.
"Tomorrow I have to go in a breakaway, no? But alone," he joked with reporters during the post-stage press conference.
"I have some seconds, and 24km is not easy, but it is a little bit different the time trial when you start 24k at 2,000 metres. It should be a little bit different."
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