A canny Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM) used a last-ditch attack to win stage 1 of the 2013 Amgen Tour of California on Sunday.
The 2012 Dutch time-trial champion made his move inside the final 5km, just as the race swallowed up the remnants of an earlier breakaway on its way back into Escondido. Francisco Mancebo (5-hour-Energy-Kenda) quickly followed, and the two came into the finishing stretch together, just seconds ahead of the charging main field.
Mancebo took the lead going through the final left-hand turn and onto the long finishing straight, but Westra made short work of him in the sprint, taking an easy victory. Peter Sagan (Cannondale) led a frustrated bunch in for third.
“I was dropped on the last climb. The legs were not so good,” said Westra. “I came back, and I saw a lot of teams, not much riding. I thought, ‘why not?’ I was lucky that Mancebo was with me, and that he was very strong.”
A hot day in the hills
The 165.1km stage started and finished amid blistering heat in Escondido, following a clockwise route that took in three KOM points — Mesa Grande, Palomar Mountain and Cole Grade — before finishing at Broadway and Grande avenues.
Zakkari Dempster (NetApp-Endura), Carter Jones (Bissell), James Stemper (5-hour Energy-Kenda) and Marsh Cooper (Optum-Kelly Benefit Systems) got busy early, building a lead of some 12 minutes at one point.
Dempster led the way over the category-4 Mesa Grande, but lost contact on the first-category Palomar climb, and the other three didn’t wait for him. As the peloton came to the realization that a double-digit lead was a bit extreme, the escapees’ advantage came down to just under eight minutes with 70km to go.
And then there were two
Jones led the trio over the Palomar KOM. Behind, Lucas Euser (UnitedHealthcare) jumped the peloton going over the top and went after the break, quickly catching and passing Dempster.
Ahead, Jones and Stemper likewise shed Cooper, and it was a two-man break.
Jones led over the final KOM, the third-category Cole Grade, and with 32km to race the leaders had a four-minute gap and 32km to race.
“It’s always our goal to race aggressively here,” Jones said. “The heat was brutal, definitely the hardest part of the day. I haven’t done anything like that all year, coming from Boulder.”
“Coming down from the finish, it was like dropping down into a sauna.”
Behind, a combination of heat and gravity split the bunch, leaving Sagan in a second group. But he had teammates with him, and soon rejoined the main chase, which swept up Cooper on a rolling section.
World champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC), too, was left behind. But he was on his own, and took longer to rejoin, latching back on just as a teammate drifted back to see what was what.
Cannondale then continued its push, lining the bunch out and taking the gap down to 3:25 with 22km to go.
Time continued to run out for the break as the chase continued, and Gilbert was in difficulty once again.
A quick succession of attacks interrupted Cannondale’s rhythm, and then a crash at the back of the bunch saw Luis Amaran (Jamis-Hagens Berman) hit the deck hard. The Cuban stayed down for a while, clearly dazed, but eventually remounted and rode on, accompanied by a teammate. He would finish 57th, more than nine minutes down.
Back at the race, the gap dropped sharply —a minute with 13km to go, then 30 seconds with 8km to go. Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Cannondale were on the front, the former for Gianni Meersman, the latter for Sagan.
With 5km remaining it was all over — and as the catch came, Westra shot off the front as Sagan went out the back, victim of a mechanical.
No bunch sprint today, thanks
Mancebo bridged to Westra and it was a fresh two-man break with 4km to race.
UnitedHealthcare then tried to organize something at the front, followed by Garmin-Sharp. But Mancebo and Westra were well away with 2km remaining.
As the two hit the red kite BMC Racing had taken over the pursuit, but it was too late — Mancebo led it out and Westra finished it off.
Will he and his Vacansoleil mates defend the jersey on Monday’s 200km stage from Murrieta to Greater Palm Springs, which looks to be another scorcher?
“We will see tomorrow,” said Westra. “The final is hard. A hard climb. I hope for a better day. Today I was dropped on the last climb. … We will see. We have a strong team and we will try to control the race. And we will see.”
• Jerseys: Westra won both the leader’s and sprint jerseys on Sunday; Mancebo, who sits second in the sprints competition, will start Monday’s stage in the sprint kit. Jones has the mountains jersey; Jasper Stuyven (Bontrager) has the best young rider’s jersey; and Stemper has the most courageous rider jersey.
Editor’s note: Matthew Beaudin contributed to this report.