Will Routley gave himself an early birthday present Wednesday at the Tour of California by taking a stage win from a group of six riders who sneaked away from the bunch about 16 km into the 165km run down the California coast.
"I came here with the goal to win a stage," said Routley, who turns 31 next week. "That's what I've wanted to do every time I've come to the Tour of California. This year I felt like I was prepared and ready, but honestly, I wasn't expecting that today was going to be the day."
The Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies rider initially infiltrated the break in search of KOM points that would consolidate his lead in the mountains classification. But when the sprinters' teams picked up the chase a little bit too late, his thoughts quickly turned to the opportunity for a stage win.
The route included three KOMs, the final two coming 46km and 40.2km from the finish. On paper, the stage looked tailor made for the fast men in the race, including Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quickstep), Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano). But a strong tailwind coming out of the mountains and pushing into the finish in Cambria foiled the sprinters' plans.
The escapee's advantage peaked at just over four minutes, and it had shrunk to 2:30 at the second-to-last KOM. But it jumped again to 3:30 by the time they hit the final KOM, and the breakaway riders realized they may have hit the jackpot.
"I've been in breaks a few times in the past when that happens, and those are great scenarios," Routley said. "You go, 'Holy smokes, this break might actually make it to the line. The sprinters' teams might mistime it.' At 30km to go we were starting to really move, and the gap was coming down really slow. At 25km to go I was thinking this is definitely going to make it, we really need to dig in."
The riders dug in and held off the chase by more than a minute heading into the finish, and their attention turned to the sprint. Team Novo Nordisk's Kevin De Masmaeker started the fireworks with the first jump, and Routley countered.
"I felt really good sprinting on the KOMs, so I felt confident I could win the sprint," Routley said. "But not everyone was going for those, so you just never know. And it's different sprinting at the top of a hill versus sprinting at 55 km an hour or whatever we were doing coming in.
"I positioned myself in the middle of the group because I know my initial jump is good," he said. "Fortunately, it worked out well. Someone opened up the sprint a little early. I was able to jump on his wheel and come around exactly where I wanted."
The win marks the eight-year pro's first in a UCI race. It's also his team's first win at the Tour of California. Routley said it was the product of a lot of hard work.
"I've always kind of been a jack of all trades and a master of none," he said. "So in my training I pretty much just work as hard as I can and work on everything. For the sprints I've been doing one-minute efforts, and I feel like my power is as good as it's ever been. I've got a power meter to monitor that, so then it's just a matter of not getting all worked up and staying confident. You know it's there, so just let it happen."
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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.
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