BIG BEAR LAKE, California (VN) — Coming into this year’s Amgen Tour of California, all eyes were on top American riders to claim the overall win at their nation’s biggest race.
Defending champion Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan), three-time winner Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), promising young rider Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) and Garmin-Barracuda teammates Tom Danielson and Andrew Talansky were the riders most widely predicted to stand atop the final overall podium.
But with the Mount Baldy summit looming before Sunday’s ceremonial ride into Los Angeles, it looks entirely possible that for only the second time ever, a foreign rider may win the Amgen Tour.
At Thursday’s stage 5 time trial in Bakersfield, Rabobank’s Dutch climber Robert Gesink, a three-time best young rider in California, uncorked the best result he’s had since breaking his leg last September. He finished fourth on the stage, and sits 39 seconds behind Dave Zabriskie.
One of the top climbers in the sport, Gesink could well fly away to victory on the steep slopes of Mount Baldy. In 2010 he won a prestigious climbing stage at the Tour de Suisse, and followed up a few months later with a win at the hilly Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal.
“He’s a rider who can win the race,” said Rabobank director Erik Breukink. “But he still has to do it. [Baldy] is a perfect climb for Robert. He showed very good condition in the time trial. We are looking forward to [Mount Baldy], but Talansky and Danielson, those guys are dangerous. You have to be very fit to win this race.”
One factor working against Gesink is the loss of teammate Laurens Ten Dam, third on Baldy in 2011, who abandoned the race Friday on Angeles Crest Highway at Wrightood with a knee injury. Instead, Gesink will look to Luis León Sanchez, Wilco Kelderman, Bram Tankink and Maarten Tjallingii for support on the lead-in to the steep 3.6-mile climb, with 1,791 feet of elevation gain, an average gradient of 9.5 percent and maximum gradient of 15 percent.
A podium finisher at the 2009 Amstel Gold Race, Gesink had a disappointing classics season last month, finishing outside of the top 20 at Amstel, Flèche Wallonne and Liège–Bastogne–Liège.
“Maybe I was a little unsure after breaking my leg last year; it takes a while to come back from that,” Gesink said. “But I felt good coming into this race. I added this race to my program, to have a little more racing for the Tour de France. So far it’s worked out really well. I had a really good time trial, I’m happy with that. And I’m in a good position for the GC. If you’re sitting in third overall, everything is possible. I’ll stay close to the front. Tejay is good. I don’t know if it’s right for [overall leader Dave] Zabriskie… Of course there are more guys to watch, I can’t name them all.”
One of those riders to watch is Omega Pharma’s Peter Velits, who sits fourth overall. A third-place finisher at the 2010 Vuelta a España (upgraded to second after the disqualification of Ezequiel Mosquera), Velits came to California prepared to ride in support of Leipheimer, should the American have found his race legs following a broken leg on April 1.
But after Leipheimer fell short in Bakersfield, and Velits performed well, their roles within the team were reversed. The Slovakian goes into the Baldy stage sitting fifth overall, 49 seconds behind Zabriskie, and 10 seconds behind Gesink.
“Peter was third at the Vuelta, of course he can climb, and he was sixth in the time trial, so he’s not too bad right now,” said Omega Pharma director Brian Holm. “He can climb on Mount Baldy. I think the big favorites for GC are Gesink and Tejay van Garderen. Last year [van Garderen] was close to being with Chris Horner and Levi. I think he’s really motivated. We’ll try for Velits on the podium. That’s our plan, but he’ll need good legs, also.”
Velits crossed the line third on stage 6 into Big Bear Lake, behind bunch sprint winner Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale). A crafty, late sprint earned him a four-second time bonus to jump over Talansky in the GC.
“To be honest, it wasn’t that hard of a stage,” Velits said after stage 6. “You couldn’t tell how the other guys were feeling. I didn’t feel so good. It might have looked differently at the finish, but for most of the day I was suffering. It’s good it’s over.”
Velits will look to Leipheimer, the stage winner on Baldy last year, to guide him to the finish. Whether or not Velits will have the legs to finish the job off remains to be seen. “I’m happy with how the time trial went,” Velits said. “It wasn’t perfect, but it was good.”
The only time a foreign rider has won the Amgen Tour was in 2010, when Aussie Michael Rogers beat Zabriskie and Leipheimer. And with the near-guarantee of attacks coming from Horner, Talansky and Danielson on Mount Baldy, the composition of the final GC is still anyone’s guess.
Asked for a prediction on which rider would win this Amgen Tour of California, Velits could not answer. “That’s a really hard question,” he said. “It’s impossible to say. I have no idea.”