When the cast of sprint superstars gathered on the pre-race press conference dais for the Amgen Tour of California, almost to a man they picked Saturday's stage 7 from Mountain High Resort to downtown Pasadena as a day for the sprinters. They were wrong.
On paper, the profile for the stage was generally downhill, with the stage starting above 2,000 metres of elevation and finishing just above sea level in Pasadena. But along the way the peloton went over three categorised climbs, including the second category ascent of Upper Big Tujunga Canyon that topped out more than 40km from the finish.
When a breakaway of five riders that included eventual stage winner Evan Huffman (Rally Cycling) slipped away on the first climb, the sprinters' chances for another day on the podium collapsed.
"Today the profile was like everything in descent, but the reality was a pretty hard stage," world champion Peter Sagan said in the post-race press conference.
"It was really hard to control. It was just climb or descend, climb or descend and it is very hard to control that for the sprinters, because they get dropped and after it is hard to get in after the breakaway is gone. Then other teams try to attack or try to catch the breakaway, then again the sprinters are gone."
Escapees Huffman, his teammate Rob Britton, Team Sky's David Lopez, Cofidis' Nicolas Edet and Dimension Data's Lachlan Morton built a maximum gap of just under two minutes as the chase behind fell into chaos because of tactics from riders hoping for one last chance to shake up the general classification.
"Today the strategy was to simply throw everything at the race, we had nothing to lose," said Rally Performance Director Jonas Carney. "These roads make it difficult to organise a chase; there are a lot of corners and few flat sections. We knew a breakaway had a chance to survive, and Britton made sure it did. He was key to our success this week."
Evan Huffman counts his stage wins for the week and number of times he's held off the sprinters via the breakaway (Getty Images)
Trek-Segafredo's Kiel Reijnen was one of the riders hoping to weld things back together for team sprinter John Degenkolb, but in the end the US rider punctured at the bottom of a climb and was knocked out of contention.
"I think [Cannondale] was looking to shake up the GC, so it turned into a really hard race, and the chase got a little disorganised," Reijnen said. "I flatted at the bottom of the climb, so that was my day done. I know we chased hard there to try and get the break back for John.
"Had we gotten the break back, I'm sure it would have been a good day for him," Reijnen said. "I'm certainly disappointed not to be up there to help with that chase. That's just the way it goes. A little bad luck."
A clearly disappointed Degenkolb told Cyclingnews in the finishing straight that the riders in the break were just too strong.
"I think they were really strong," Degenkolb said. "It's not that we didn't chase, if it's so much downhill then it's hard to make up time. It was not really a sprint stage, my friend."
Stage 1 winner Marcel Kittel and his Quick-Step Floors team were also targeting this stage, but in the end the Belgian super squad also fell short as the pace dislodged Kittel long before the finish.
"It was tough, I think all the big fellas were feeling it after the last couple of days in the hills and the time trial at altitude yesterday," Quick-Step's Jack Bauer told Cyclingnews.
"As soon as they started heading out in the beginning when the road was ramping up, I think most of the sprinters were put on their back foot," Bauer said. "Sagan looked pretty comfortable, as he always does, but for sure we were working hard to limit the damage to Kittel in the back group. To bring it back on that downhill just wasn't possible."
Asked if the team had given up once Kittel was dislodged, Bauer left no doubt about the final effort.
"We were risking our lives, man," he said. "In situations like that you put it all on the line."
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