The Tour of California is the closest thing I have to a “home race.” Although it’s 5000 km away, the fans speak English, the roads and climbs are familiar to me from past editions, and my family and friends are more easily able to follow.
Team: Mark Cavendish, Reinardt van Rensburg, Louis Mentijs, Bernard Eisel, Lars Bak, Jay Thomson, and me
Amgen Tour of California: 7 Stages
Stage 1: 145 km
The threat of a crosswind never actuated, and a mellow pace brought us towards the finishing laps in downtown Sacramento. The run in to the circuit proved the hardest and craziest part of the race rushing toward the first corner like an avalanche. With the experience of Bernie Eisel, Lars Bak, and Jay Thompson, we entered in safe position. On the second lap I shot into top five position, but it was dangerous to stay there with riders cramming into spaces. Bernie got shoved into the barriers. In the end we finished safe but without a result.
Stage 2: 220 km
From sea level the course took us on a draining death march to over 8000 ft elevation. With each thousand ft of elevation the oxygen thinned. A seven man breakaway played games with us, letting the gap drop to one minute, hoping we would slow and gift them more advantage. Instead riders tried jumping across. I followed a couple of moves. Then nearing the highest point of elevation, Team EF launched a team attack. Riders popped off the back. On the next steep section, the sent Lachlan Morton up the road. On each roller the pack thinned. My young Virginia training partner, Eddie Anderson, forced his way into a strong move. I wished I could encourage him on the radio, but suffering and gasping for air, I could only worry about myself and Louis. My legs felt awful, but out of a small group like this anything is possible. I made a point of following the best on the next steep kicker with ten km to go and my legs responded with surprising strength. I gained confidence and started thinking about the finish. With two km to go we took a right turn, and a readied myself for the uphill sprint. As soon as the road turned up, however, violent cramps seized my right leg. I tried to pedal through it but the cramp intensified. I tried peddling with my left leg, but when it cramped also I was forced off my bike. I tried three times to remount but each time that brutal cramp returned. Louis made the selection but I conceded nearly three minutes.
Stage 3: 210 km
On paper it looked like the best day for a breakaway, which drew out the fight to be there. A dangerous group split away in crosswinds at the start. Jay helped bring it back. After another flurry of attacks two riders got away. We were content with the situation. Team EF with American, Tejay Van Garderen, in the overall lead allowed the breakaway a long lead. In order to discourage attacks, EF set a painful pace up the long ascent of Mt. Hamilton thinning the peloton to around sixty riders. I made it over the top with the contenders but with the breakaway still at 9 minutes it was clear we were racing for minor placings. With the win out of reach and five hours with hard climbing in our legs, the speed still felt uncomfortable. But, I knew the final stretch of road. There was a rolling section where an ambitious rider could get out of sight, and then pick up a tailwind to the finish. I was achy and tired, but thought if I committed to suffering a little more I could still get a podium finish. As I moved toward the front of the pack, I saw Simon Geshke already slipping away. Without hesitating I launched after him. The two of us worked well together building a minute advantage over the peloton. Then we saw 2nd place dangling ahead of us. We reeled him in as Team Ineos took up the chase behind us. I managed to come around Simon in the sprint finishing 2nd on the stage.
After a difficult winter it felt great tossing flowers from the podium to my wife, Jenna, and seeing my parents on their last day at the race.
Stage 4: 220 km
As we took a turn after five km a rider beside me noted, “we’ll be on this road for the next 200 km.” Fortunately the PCH is one of the most scenic roads in America. Unfortunately rain soaked us and clouds shrouded the view. After an hour the sun came out and lifted our spirits. A headwind meant a long day, but the last ten km were anything but boring. Every rider knew to be in the front for the exit ramp off the PCH with 8 km to go. We held back until the last moment then surged up the right side taking the turn first. With so many legs still fresh, there was a lot of pushing and squeezing to be at the front. I saw four riders go off the road onto the mulched shoulder and winced waiting for them to fall. They stayed upright, but a sickening crash sounded behind me. It unnerved me as we continued butting shoulders before the uphill sprint. Reini placed 5th for us. Since the crash happened near 3 km to go the judges determined to extend the “3 km rule" giving everyone the same finishing time. Then we got the bad news. Louis, one of a few riders injured in the crash, broke his wrist. Not only did our GC hopes end, but Louis is looking at a long road back.
Stage 5: 220 km
After three days churning away for over six hours, we prepared for another long day, but this time a strong tailwind lifted the speed and difficulty. With crosswinds at the finish and a very steep one km climb five km from the finish, the stage suited Reini. Excellent team work kept us in prime position for all of the critical moments approaching the finish. We muscled into the last kicker and the peloton exploded. I made the first group of 30. Just as we crested the climb with 4 km to go, my front wheel slipped. I bounced on it a few times and fatigue amplified the irrational, aimless anger I felt as my tire went from soft to flat. At that moment I passed by my friend from Virginia, Johnny Phan, who was jumping up and down shouting at me. Johnny, sorry I was distracted! Good to see you. Reini finished 11th in the sprint.
Stage 6: 126 km
The infamous Mt. Baldy stage is as exciting as it is predictable. Although the breakaway never survives, it always influences the race so I looked for opportunities to escape early without spending too much energy. I followed a move, but it was the next one that rolled away. Team EF set the pace. After the first long climb, the peloton regrouped and we absorbed the most dangerous GC rider who had been dropped from the breakaway. With the only GC threat gone from the break, EF dropped the speed. I knew I couldn’t win playing the best climber’s game, so I discussed a fun risky plan with Bernie and asked a couple riders from other teams to join. Before the road kicked up again, Bernie yanked us off the front. My hope was that some strong, aggressive riders would light it up and shatter the race early as has happened before. In that case we would save energy by getting ahead of the action and slot in with them when they came past. We gained over a minute riding at our own tempo. But, instead of attacking Trek raised the pace incrementally. They created a forty rider selection by attrition. Still, we slotted in near the top of the third climb and prepared for the high altitude summit finish. I could see my power dropping as the altitude increased and we absorbed the large early break. I saw Johnny again, my ex-teammate, Phil Gaimon, and friend, Guy East on the road. That was nice but the final eight km were filled with misery just grinding to the line. Tejay lost the jersey to Tedej Pogacar.
Stage 7: 127 km
My gut told me, that despite a sprint course layout, GC contenders would go all in on the two climbs mid race. When 2016 winner, George Bennet set two riders in the break, my suspicions were confirmed. To get ahead of the mess, I launched across the gap to the breakaway. Just as I caught the tail end of it on a small hill, a group of riders were gapped and took me back to the peloton with them. As predicted George sprinted into the mountainous portion of the course. I ended up in the second group behind the favourites. Eventually, we waited for other groups who organised a chase to bring their sprinters back into the stage hunt. Second by second we reeled in the escapees. Proud of my ability to navigate the dangers of a sprint finish without wasting energy, I got to experience my first legitimate lead-out, sprinting into 300 meters to go on the front. Reini came off my wheel but it was a bit early and he placed just outside the top ten.
Since the race, Jenna and I have flown to Kansas City for an event at Garmin Headquarters, then flown to NJ to spend some time with her family, and now we are driving down to Virginia where I plan to train the house down for Tour de Suisse and hopefully a shot at the Tour de France. Thanks for reading!