Amgen Tour of California 8 stages

After the Ardennes Classics I returned to the USA. The well timed respite of team activity  included the birth of my niece, Lily Hadley, and a father son trip where I caught a 6 lb largemouth, my biggest yet. In training I backed off the volume and revved up the intensity busting some of my own records. I planned to start the Tour of California anxious I hadn’t trained enough- AKA, fresh and hungry. That allowed me to fly west early to spend time with Guy East, founder of Hope Sports, which facilitates the annual home build I do in Mexico. Maybe the culture of the California boardwalk inspired this conversation: 

“Hey, Guy. Let’s get tattoos.”

“Ha, no way man! How about we get tattoos if you win a stage in Cali."

“That's against everything hope sports stands for! It would be identifying myself based on performance. YOU can get a tattoo if I win something."

Guy chuckled, "Ok, I’ll get a tattoo if you win a stage.” 

On the record.

The squad: Wouter Wippert, Toms Skujins, Alan Marangoni, Me, Phil Gaimon, Lawson Craddock, Patrick Bevin, Andrew Talansky 

Stage 1: 175 km

We knew the sprinters wouldn’t want to miss out on one of their only chances for a bunch kick. Since we brought a sprinter, Wouter Wippert, their tactics played into our hands. A crosswind, rough road, and high speed made the first half of the race uncomfortable, but as the finish drew near we perked up and embraced it. The team divided forces. Three riders, including me, rallied around Lawson to keep him protected. The other three helpers positioned Wouter for the sprint. In the last kilometre, he latched onto Lotto’s lead out and only Peter Sagan out nudged him at the line. 

PC: Casey Gibson

PC: Casey Gibson

Stage 2: 150 km

Stage two breakaway literally had my name on it in the team's performance plan we received a week before the race. 

After an hour of racing uphill, “Juanma, I’m alone in front. What should I do?” 

“Keep going! A group will come to you.”

I had attacked a 22 rider breakaway when the peloton brought it back. 

I averaged 400 watts for 40 minutes (960 calories). But instead of a breakaway, the diminished peloton overcame me. Already in deep, I followed constant attacks on each uphill kick. The yellow jersey, Peter Sagan, had only two teammates left with him. Finally, the elastic snapped and four of us hammered away. The peloton slowed allowing the domestiques to catch up and begin chasing us. During that period we built a six minute advantage. It was a suicide move with just four riders, but I calculated we could go far if we  could stretch out to seven minutes. When the moto official’s white board showed seven minutes, I began scheming. 

Over a flat headwind section between mountain ranges the peloton ate up the road between us, shrinking our gap to three minutes at 50 km to go. We were well within striking distance. 

Charly pulled beside me in the car. “Push the pace on these next two climbs. The guys chasing won’t want to drop their sprinters. Evan is faster than you. Maybe you should attack these guys. What do you think?”

Evan had out sprinted me to both KOM lines. Still I told Charly, “I can win in a sprint. We’ll go further if we keep working together." Then I had to convince myself. I thought if I sprinted in a bigger gear I could pass Evan at the finish, but I also wasn’t sure I could drop him and attacking would threaten our unspoken alliance.

I rode as hard as I could over those climbs, and the rider from Giant-Alpecin dropped. Our gap didn’t change. With twenty km to go a fierce headwind on a long uphill drag pushed us backwards. If we glanced back we might have seen the peloton raging toward us. I took monster pulls, and thankfully Huffman and Will Barta continued to rotate. We sold out.

At 11 km to go just 40 seconds separated us from the chase. We picked up a tailwind on a steep two km climb. Evan put in a dig that made my eyeballs bulge. I checked behind, saw Barta in trouble, and injected more power to the crest of the hill at 10 km to go. That put Barta away and insured Evan and me a little extra tv time. We drilled it past the five km to go banner. It confused me that the neutral cars were still behind us, that I couldn’t hear fans screaming for the peloton behind us. I looked back. Empty road. The tension tripled. 

I had to work up the guts to beat a snappier sprinter than me, but we couldn’t afford to “cat and mouse” yet. I also had to time my last pull so that Evan would be stuck on the front at one km to go to lead out the sprint. At two km to go, we passed a big sign for Lily’s Cafe. I thought about my brand new niece. Thought about the people I love who I knew were watching. The 1 km banner loomed. I pulled off and flicked my elbow. Evan came through slowly. All the sudden my adductor cramped. “Not now! Please, not now!” I stretched it and jiggled my quads. 

600 meters. Slow roll. Evan looked back urging me to pass. I shook my head. The peloton fanned across the road behind us like a tidal wave. 300 meters. I stood up and selected a big gear to start the sprint. 200 meters. 170 meters. Evan pounced and opened a small gap. I wound up to speed, and closed in on his slipstream. 150 meters. I swung out of the draft and inch by inch dragged my front wheel parallel to his flexing every muscle in my body. 100 meters. We wrenched on our bikes, insides screaming. 50 meters. I heard nothing, saw nothing but the white line and Evan’s front wheel in the corner of my eye wanting it as much as me. 30 meters. Evan’s wheel drifted back in my periphery. I threw my bike at the line, put my fists in the air and pounded my chest. When I returned to my senses, heard and saw the crowd, I pointed to the sky. My teammates and friends in the peloton practically tackled me. 

This is one of the most satisfying victories of my life, especially considering how the season started. Nobody, including myself, believed we could survive until I hit the line. To me it represents the purest kind of drama in cycling. If we succumbed to the pain because “they will catch us anyway,” they would have. A stubborn resistance inspired by irrational hope and inflexible belief paid off. We both knew our worthy goal was impossible, but tried anyway.   

Stage 3: 180 km

We wanted to take control of this stage yellow jersey or not. The summit finish on Mount Gibraltar would sort out the GC race and Lawson Craddock had earned our full support. Alan Marangoni and Wouter Wippert pulled like mules along the PCH. The two of them brought back a seven rider breakaway by themselves. Paddy Bevin crashed and would require seven stitches in his elbow. He dusted himself off and looking like he'd survived a shark attack, found his way to the front and performed his roll to perfection. 
Side Note: roadside fruit stands sold 12 avocados for $5. Whaaaat!?! 
I itched to rip the climb at the front, sacrificing the yellow jersey in support of our pure climbers. Every big body and sprinter battled to bring their climbers to the base of Gibraltar at the front. I dodged a crash and threw elbows but defended 5th wheel. However, 500 meters from the base of the climb, I suffered a mechanical and had to stop for the car. For fifteen minutes, I fought through the shrapnel of dropped riders, but it was a lost cause - over before it started. Still it was an honour, to ride in the yellow jersey behind such a hitter team.

On the climb, Phil Gaimon whittled the peloton down to 20 riders, then Talansky took over. Near the top Lawson began to suffer. Talansky stayed with him to limit losses and they placed just outside the top ten. 

Stage 4: 220 km

After 50 km a breakaway still hadn't formed. All of us followed attacks, and a few times I was off the front simply attempting to neutralize dangerous groups. I dropped my prescription glasses. Then seven riders broke free. We churned along the PCH, up and down the rocky cloud shrouded coast. Off sheer cliffs the road peered into misty oceanic oblivion and jumped over crevasses on old stone bridges. Remembering stage two my legs ached to the bone. Hours later we turned inland toward the Laguna Seca race track. I helped lead the team into the climbs where they launched. A rider crashed into me at the base of the climb and opened the skewer of my rear wheel. The boy's attacks showed heart but they couldn't break the lead group before the finish line. 

Stage 5: 215 km

"There's no way it's as bad as it looks," I thought, downplaying the profile which climbed from sea level to 2600 meters elevation accumulating over 4000 in the process. As the breakaway sorted itself out, a crosswind blew the peloton to pieces. I followed a dozen attacks, and after 20 km Toms Skujins countered his way into an 18 man break. Trek and Lotto chased to defend their 2nd and 3rd positions overall. 

Since the course tilted up for 100 km, pitching and rolling steadily toward the stratosphere and Lake Tahoe, nobody could truly hide. It was a silent death march. Each suffering in their own way. The pure sprinters suffered openly. The heavier diesels looked numb. The climbers and those adapted to altitude looked hungry. Once we climbed above 5000 ft altitude, conversations were short and temperamental. I got a headache and the thin air drained the power from my legs. At 8000 ft a gust of wind blew a couple riders off the road and split the peloton. A few of us made it back after a 70+ mile an hour descent. 

Meanwhile, Toms blew minds. Relying on brute strength and disregarding tactical savvy, he dropped the breakaway with 70 km to go. They caught him and he attacked again at 30 km to go. This time two riders joined him and they left the other escapees behind for the peloton to consume. As our director Charly encouraged Toms up the short final climb, I moved to the front to set up the guys. Once again 500 meters before the turn to the climb, I had to stop for another mechanical. 

Part of my soul was in agony, while part of it awakened in the fresh mountain air, a soothing blend of melting snow and wild pine. Yet, Toms redeemed the day of interminable discomfort by claiming the victory. Phil Gaimon also helped because every day fans bring cookies to him at the bus, and I needed them!

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Stage 6: 21 km TT

If you’ve been following my reports over the years, you’ll know. If not, I’ll let you in on an inside joke. I’ve finished 18th, not 17th, not 19th, but 18th in almost every time trial I’ve done over the last four years. Without any pressure in the TT I told Juanma, "I’ll start at race pace. If I’m on a good one, when you get time splits, let me know and I’ll keep pushing.” I placed 18th.

After dinner in Tahoe (Nevada) the night before, I sat with Andrew Talansky while he played a little roulette at our hotel’s casino. He won $60. However, there was no luck about his 2nd place result which bumped him to 4th overall. Lawson ripped a 7th place and moved to 6th overall. 

Stage 7: 175 km

Climbs early in the stage presented one final opportunity to isolate the GC hitters and go for broke. All chips on red. A ferocious start put the sprinters in difficulty. Talansky chased on after a crash. Toms finally broke clear with 14 riders. Then we hit a series of punchy climbs and harrowing descents that stair stepped up over King’s ridge and dropped down to the coast. Before the TV cameras even switched on, the race was full bore. Stetina attacked, Lawson countered, Andrew countered, Lawson went again. The peloton split in half. The sky threatened rain so I moved up to bring Andrew a vest, but the game was too hot for layers. Lawson attacked. Andrew and I left a gap and drifted wheels of those in desperate pursuit. We were a group of twenty, then 35 with the 14 others still a minute ahead.

On the next rollers, Lawson attacks, then Andrew, then me. Sanchez followed, but I refused to work with him. Then Lawson bridged the gap and I pulled full gas. Race leader, Alaphilippe, had just one teammate left and closed the gap on his own. On the next steep downhill I pounded a pothole and my front tire exploded. There were no cars behind us and I stood on the side of the road for two minutes waiting for the next group and a wheel change. I heard later that the neutral support vehicle had crashed. That’s how technical and narrow the roads were. 

The lead group took off and the remaining 100 of us rode gran fondo pace, enjoying the views for the next 100 km. 

Mechanicals, near crashes, and this flat tire in the worst possible moments- that’s a lot of bad luck, but I wouldn’t trade it for the good luck I had! 

Stage 8: 140 km

What could have been a relaxed parade for the sprinters turned out to be one of the most stressful stages. The wind and rough roads created a nervous atmosphere, but we avoided trouble. Alan Marangoni showed his power and it took all of four teams to catch him before the finish. The sprinters duked out the win. 

Andrew and Lawson ended 4th and 5th overall.

In and Out burgers waited for us on the bus. Cheers fellas! 

Stay tuned for a flurry of upcoming travels and races. Also, Guy East is accepting tattoo suggestions. Don’t let him forget it!   

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