With the gaps in the general classification widened after the 2013 Tour of California time trial in San Jose, and BMC's Tejay van Garderen a virtual shoo-in for the overall victory, the domestic teams who were chasing a final podium spot are now left fighting for the remaining scraps: two more stage or maybe a minor podium placing.
Van Garderen extended his lead by winning the time trial, and now holds 1:47 on Michael Rogers (Saxo-Tinkoff), with Orica-GreenEdge's Cameron Meyer in third at 2:57. BMC has its Swiss climber Mathias Frank in fourth, 24 seconds off the podium, while former race leader Janier Acevedo (Jamis-Hagens Berman) is in fifth a further 10 seconds back.
Acevedo's directeur sportif Sebastian Alexandre thinks it will be impossible to unseat van Garderen, and it is unlikely Acevedo can get ahead of Rogers, but he is still aiming for either a stage win, a podium for Acevedo, or both.
"It's going to be very difficult to change the GC lead. Tejay has proven he's climbing very well, and unless something strange happens, he will win.
"We will probably think more about the stage and moving Janier up to the podium. He's only 34 seconds down on third place, and we are confident in him, and he is very motivated."
The stage from Livermore to Mt. Diablo won't just be about the final climb, however. At least one team, the 5-Hour Energy squad led by Frankie Andreu, is willing to push its chips in and go all in to move Francisco "Paco" Mancebo up in the classification. Mancebo is down 4:26, which is a big deficit to make up, but sometimes teams will give a rider more leeway if they think they can control the gap.
"I hope they'll give him some leash. We plan to be aggressive," Andreu said. "We can't wait until the final climb. It's not just up to us, though. Little 5-Hour Energy isn't going to crack BMC. We have Nate English and Max Jenkins who know the route really well. We might send some guys up the road early and then try to launch Paco in the end.
"Paco is definitely not content with seventh. He was really disappointed to miss the split in the crosswinds [on stage 5], and we all know Paco's a gambler. He is going to risk losing big in order to win."
UnitedHealthcare was close to getting Philip Deignan onto the race podium: he was sitting third overall until RadioShack and BMC split the peloton in the crosswinds on the stage to Avila Beach, and Deignan dropped to fifth overall. After the time trial, the Irishman is down to eighth, and is 4:52 off the lead.
"We've chased the GC for several years with Rory Sutherland, and we know that as a Pro Continental team we only have so many bullets," said UnitedHealthcare manager Mike Tamayo. "The time trial didn't go as well as we had planned, and this only reminds us why we came to the race for stage wins."
Tamayo thinks the team can still reach that goal either on Mt. Diablo or on the final stage to Santa Rosa. "We came here with a split team, and I think Diablo will be more tactical of a climb than the Tramway climb in Palm Springs was. We have three climbers, Lucas Euser, Marc de Maar and Philip Deignan, who can try there, and then we have our three sprinters, Jake Keough, Aldo Ino Ilesic and John Murphy, for Santa Rosa.
"A stage win takes one-third brains, one-third strength, and one-third luck. We know we have the first two, we just need a little luck to go our way."
Van Garderen himself is feeling more confident by the day of finally breaking his stage race duck. With a large lead on Michael Rogers, who was dropped by him and Acevedo in Palm Springs, and a strong team, he only needs to mark his most immediate threats.
"I'm going to have to assess who is dangerous, and who we can afford to give a little space. I think the usual suspects are still the dangerous guys. Like Mick Rogers, Acevedo and Deignan.
"I expect [the attacks] to come on the upper third of the climb. That's where it gets a little bit steeper. And that's where guys are going to start to suffer a little bit. But I think we have a strong team, and I think with Mathias Frank, who's climbing unbelievable, I think I have a good ally there."
Rogers said that the difficulty of the climb will depend more on how it's raced than the gradient itself, unlike the Tramway climb on stage 2. "It's not so steep, I'm not expecting it to be like the finish into Palm Springs. It's the riders who make the race, and I'm sure a lot of the guys who are just out of the top 10 will be trying to make an attack from a long way out.
"Obviously BMC have a very strong team, and all the reason in the world to defend the jersey, and I'm sure they will."
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