Van Garderen counts on BMC teammates to defend Tour of California lead

After getting through the crash-marred sprint stage from Stockton to Elk Grove at the Amgen Tour of California on Thursday, overall race leader Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) has just one more general classification hurdle to get over to claim his second overall win in the Golden State. But it's quite a hurdle.

The 196.5km sixth stage from Folsom to South Lake Tahoe starts climbing immediately and eventually tops out at 2,615 metres of elevation at the fifth KOM of the day before finishing on a category 3 climb.

Along the way, the riders will tackle another category 3, three category 2s and two category 1s. It won't be a day for the timid, and it should provide plenty of opportunities for the GC contenders to set off some fireworks.

"Today was a pretty straightforward day," Van Garderen said in the stage 5 post-race press conference in Elk Grove. "It was more about conserving energy and staying safe in the final. I stayed glued to my teammates' wheels and they did a good job protecting me. Now it's all systems go tomorrow for the stage to Tahoe."

Van Garderen will go into stage 6 with a 23-second buffer over, stage 2 winner and former race leader, Egan Bernal (Team Sky) and 37 seconds over Daniel Martinez (EF Education First-Drapac). Bernal's teammate Tao Geoghegan Hart lost time behind the late crash on stage 5 and dropped from fourth to fifth, now 1:15 off Van Garderen's pace. Mitchelton-Scott's Adam Yates is now fourth at 1:07, and stage 2 runner-up Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) is sixth at 1:29 back. The next rider, 20-year-old Brandon McNulty, is 2:08 behind.

Team Sky has two cards to play on Friday with Bernal and Geoghegan Hart, while EF Education First-Drapac, Mitchelton-Scott and Bora-Hansgrohe could be the jokers in the deck. Van Garderen is anticipating a wild day in the mountains.

"First of all, I think the breakaway won't roll off the line like you've seen it do that past few days," he said. "I think it will be a hard breakaway to get into, so that will already make the race hard just attrition-wise, and then the final climb heading up into Tahoe, I expect Bernal and a lot of the other climbers are gonna attack and try to win the race there."

Team Sky sports director Ollie Cookson previously told Cyclingnews the team was still working out the tactics for Friday, but it could involve a long attack to insitigate an early chase from BMC to try and whittle down Van Garderen's helpers and leave him isolated, or they could go with the last-ditch power attack on the final climb the way Bernal did in stage 2 on Gibraltar Road, where Bernal put 50 seconds into Van Garderen and took a 10-second time bonus for the win. Asked what he'd do if he was in Team Sky's position, van Garderen admitted it was a tough call.

"I don't know," he said. "The thing is, if you try to plan for too many scenarios, then you're just going to end up over thinking it. I know I'm strong. I know Sky is going to race aggressively and they're also strong. I'm just going to try and be prepared for whatever they throw at me.

"The thing is, Tao is a little further back, so I don't have to worry about him as much, van Garderen said. "That being said, I also have a strong team. I have a guy sitting in 10th place [Brent Bookwalter – ed.] who's no scrub on the climbs, so I like where I'm at. I'd rather be in first going into tomorrow than second.

The riders will eventually have to lay all their cards on the table in Tahoe, but at the moment it's impossible to say who has the winning hand.

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Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.