Amgen Tour of California

George Hincapie in Amgen Tour of California Stage 7 Breakaway CREDIT: Anita Franklin
The Amgen Tour of California started in Lake Tahoe and after eight stages made its final arrival to enthusiastic crowds in Thousand Oaks. The overall racing was predictable – the top favorites stomped the competition in all the key stages. However instead of three-time Amgen Tour of California champion Levi Leipheimer it was the selfless RadioShack teammate Chris Horner taking the win.

Days before the Lake Tahoe stage a snow storm was threatening to dump. Finally moments before the stage start, the organizers were forced to pull the plug on the day due to safety conditions on the course. As evidence of how treacherous the road was, the leading camera motos that had departed before the stage start crashed on the slippery road. No one was denying that canceling the stage was the smart move.

Stage 2 was once again a victim of Mother Nature’s wraith. At least this time the plan “B” could be implemented. The day started down the mountain in Squaw and additional loops were added to the finish around the capital in Sacramento. No huge surprise there was a bunch sprint and Ben Swift (Sky) won the sprint taking the first leader’s jersey of the 2011 Amgen Tour of California.

Stage 3 brought another day for the sprinters. Again a Sky rider took the sprint finish but this time it was Kiwi Greg Henderson. With his victory in the streets of Modesto he took the leader’s jersey from his teammate Swift.

Stage 4 was the stage everyone was waiting for – the first true hill top finish. Sierra Road in San Jose is THE hill in the area. This steep four mile ascent has featured in previous Amgen Tours of California. However due to the location of the finish, the riders who had been dropped were brought back usually ending in a sprint finish into town. However, this time the racers would climb this brute from the steep side. Many thought that Leipheimer or Schleck would pounce and the true battle for the overall would begin. Well, that was partly true.

The RadioShack had their young muscle out front like Siberian Huskies pulling a sled. The damage was done and the the move of Garmin-Cervelo’s Ryder Hesjedal was rolled over by a RadioShack rider – Chris Horner.

Looking the leanest he’d ever been in his whole career, the 39-year old crushed the climb taking the victory in a wide two-armed salute. A minute and 15 seconds later Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) took the sprint for second over Rory Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare) and Leipheimer. Looking at how well the Shack squad rode and then seeing the dominance of Horner on Sierra Road, there was no doubt that a RadioShack rider would be on the top step of the podium after the final stage.

At the post-stage press conference Horner said that the past five weeks he had trained the hardest he’d ever done and was aiming for a top five at the Tour de France.

Mud slides forced the race organizers to make a course deviation but stage 5 was still a beautiful course, just not enough of a challenge to dislodge Horner for the golden leader’s jersey. It was Liquigas-Cannondale’s Peter Sagan who took the stage win. This young rider has proven that he can win in the mountains, last year at Big Bear Mountain, and in the bunch sprint of Paso Robles.

Historically the Solvang time trial was the location where the leader’s jersey has been cemented. In Stage 6, Horner held a one minute – 15 seconds lead over his teammate Leipheimer. Horner expected to lose some time but not enough over the rolling 15 mile course to have to give the leader’s jersey to Leipheimer.

As expected time trial specialist David Zabriskie (Garmin-Cervelo) took the win. With an aerodynamic position that few can attain DZ was a darkhorse favorite for the overall win. Those hopes were dashed on Sierra Road, but at least he claimed a stage.

Stage 7 was the Queen stage and a true mountain top finish. The racers would have to climb the windy Glendora Mountain Road, but then the kicker is the ascent to the summit of Mt Baldy. RadioShack would once again show that they were the most dominant team at the Amgen Tour of California.

George Hincapie featured in an early break that was allowed some freedom. Ultimately they were brought back and Hincapie finished the day in 33rd place and Athens, Georgia resident and BMC teammate Brent Bookwalter was 27th.

Employing the same strategy they used on Sierra Road, RadioShack lined up their riders at the front and burned off their competition. While an effective course of action to secure the leader’s jersey, it didn’t make for exciting viewing. The speed was so high no one could attack and instead riders just dropped like empty water bottles. At least the many spectators who lined the road were entertaining – the Pope, sumo wrestlers and of course, the all ways present horn guy were in attendance.

In the closing kilometers the only riders who were left at the front were Leipheimer pushing the pace and Horner tucked in behind. The RadioShack duo crossed hand in hand with Levi crossing the line first. It was his first road stage victory at the Amgen Tour of California as his other wins had been in the race of truth.

The final day of most stage races are usually reserved for the sprinters. Stage 8 started in Santa Clarita and would end 82 miles later in Thousand Oaks.

As expected there was the early break of four riders. And sure enough as they peloton rolled into the closing circuits in Thousand Oaks, the break started to crack. The Jamis rider started pedaling squares and with a drop of the head was left behind by the break.

With 12 kilometers remaining, the break was just three riders strong with only a 20 second lead and the HTC-Highroad team at the front of the peloton. The writing was on the wall – it was going to come down to a field sprint.

With one lap to go the peloton was nipping at the heels of the three riders. With five kilometers to the finish line the HTC-Highroad led peloton swept up the three. Now it was time for the teams to organize their sprinters.

With 3k to go Saxo bank with JJ Heido were leading it out for the line. HTC-Highroad was directly behind them.

HTC took over the train and Matty Goss was moved into third. Was he their main guy? Suddenly Sky took over with Rabobank sneaking into third place. In the final 500 meters HTC was back at the front, launching Goss for the win. Amazingly Sagan made a huge pass on the inside and grabbed second place.

Safely in the field and crossing the line surrounded by his RadioShack teammates was Chris Horner. The RadioShack team dominated this tour, perhaps as redemption for walking away from the 2010 edition with zero stage wins and Leipheimer finishing in third. Next up for Horner is some well deserved rest before the Big Show in July and perhaps a top five overall.

Next weekend is the US Pro championships and Bookwalter told that the Greenville races are a goal.

“It’s been a dream of mine since the beginning of my career to be Captain America for one year. It’s a special race and largely depends on team dynamics. But I should have good form coming off of the Tour of California.”

Last March, Bookwalter broke his collarbone at the Volta a Catalunya. Because of this injury he had only been able to train the week before Stage 1 of the 2010 Amgen Tour of California. This year he is on schedule with training and with the seven-day stage race in the legs, he’s hoping he’ll have the form to win the stars and stripes jersey and wear it with pride in the Tour de France.

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