Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) on Wednesday confirmed his return from a broken collarbone he suffered at the Tour of Flanders, when he finished second in a challenging uphill sprint at Laguna Seca Raceway during stage 4 at the Tour of California.
Van Avermaet survived a difficult route up the California coast, and then climbed with the best over several short kickers near the finish of the stage, battling Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) to the line but failing to come around the world champion for the win.
It was a big boost of confidence for the Belgian Classics specialist whose broken shoulder required surgery and forced him to miss Paris-Roubaix.
"You always have to wait and see how the body will react after a crash and how good your form is after you come back, so I'm pretty happy I'm up here with the best," he told Cyclingnews on the legendary raceway outside of Monterey.
"Sagan is the best in the world in these kinds of finishes and I'm close to him, so I'm pretty happy with that, and I'm looking forward to keeping this rhythm going and to be really good in Dauphine and Tour de France."
The 217km stage from Morro Bay to the twisting race track was super fast, loaded with climbs and had a tricky finish. It was a good test for Van Avermaet as he continues to prepare for the Tour de France.
Van Avermaet, who beat Sagan in a sprint earlier this year at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, was well positioned behind Sagan as they came off Laguna Seca's downhill corkscrew turn and onto the finishing straight, but he lacked he top-end speed necessary to get passed the Tinkoff leader.
"He waited pretty long, and I could not surprise him," Van Avermaet said. "He saw me coming and he reacted pretty good. We were always in the wind, and I stayed the same distance from him, but I couldn't come over him. It is like it is. He won the race and I came second, but hopefully next time it's the opposite again."
Van Avermaet may have more chances to battle Sagan at this year's Tour de France, which is his main target following the Belgian nationals and Criterium du Dauphine next month.
But first there is more business to attend to in California, where Van Avermaet says he's going to be hunting the stage win that eluded him on Wednesday.
"There are some good stages still coming up," he said. "I like the parcours at the Tour of California this year. It's pretty hard, but we will see. The next days may be really hard to control.
"Today, Sagan took the responsibility to control the race, but for us it's a bit different because we have a few GC guys and we have me, so we have different goals to play and it's hard to control with a few guys, but we will see. [Thursday] is a hard stage, and so maybe it's another chance if everything works out well."