Few of the thousands of spectators packed along Panorama Bluffs in Bakersfield at the Amgen Tour of California on Thursday afternoon noticed the man crossing the line alone in 56th place, 3:27 behind stage 5 winner Peter Sagan. But that rider, Australian Mark Renshaw of HTC-Columbia, was fiercely proud of a performance that helped propel team leader Michael Rogers into the race lead.
“I think today I can announce that I’m 100 percent back after Epstein-Barr virus,” Renshaw told VeloNews at the end of the 195.5km stage through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada from Visalia.
Renshaw was at the front end of the race for most of the five hours. His usual job is to lead out teammate Mark Cavendish — a job he does to perfection at the Tour de France — but Thursday wasn’t a day for the sprinters. Cavendish would end the stage in the 55-man peloton, more than nine minutes back.
The team’s first task was to keep the race together until the first intermediate sprint in Lindsay, 26km out of Visalia, where Rogers had a chance of taking one of the time bonuses.
“We led him out for that early sprint and he got a couple of bonus seconds,” Renshaw said. That smart move was completed by Cavendish protecting Rogers’ back and taking third in the sprint, to prevent race leader Dave Zabriskie from also taking a bonus.
Next up for Renshaw, relieved of any Cavendish duties, was to get in the day’s key breakaway. He did, and it was his repeated attacks in the final 50km that kept the break alive and allowed Rogers and his key teammates an easy ride in the chase pack.
“It was a tailwind most of the day,” Renshaw added. “Then we had a head wind after the last climb (30km from the finish) that slowed us down. But I felt really good. I was happy that I could get out front and give it a bit of a go and try my luck for a win.”
Renshaw was still on the attack with fellow Aussie Ben Day of Fly V Australia when they hit the Bakersfield finish, featuring three hard climbs up Panorama Bluffs. “When I saw that finish I knew it was gonna be difficult for the sprinters,” he said, “so after they caught me I made one last pull for the team, and then it was up to Michael and Tony (Martin). For me, with 1.5K to go, it was lights out.”
Rogers took a six-second bonus for second place, and moved level on overall time with Zabriskie, but he took the yellow jersey because he finished ahead of the Garmin-Transitions team leader on the stage.
“It wasn’t the plan for Michael to take the jersey,” HTC-Columbia team director Allan Peiper said. “He was trying to win the stage. So now we have a jersey to defend.”
Looking ahead to Friday’s marathon climbing stage from Palmdale to Big Bear Lake, Renshaw said, “It’s gonna be a really tough day. Hopefully, Michael can go with the RadioShack guys when they go. My job will be just to finish.”
No doubt, the tough-as-nails Renshaw will still be in the race on Sunday’s rugged finishing stage at Thousand Oaks, helping Rogers defend, depending on the result of Saturday’s Los Angeles time trial. Renshaw concluded, “This race is really good preparation for the Tour de France.”
In the Tour, where the stakes are even higher, look for Renshaw. For sure, he’ll again be leading out Cavendish in the sprints; but he’ll also be there to help Rogers shoot for the GC. It’s great to feel healthy again.