Atop the biggest climb of this year’s Amgen Tour of California, Orica-GreenEdge rider Esteban Chaves took a solo victory at Mountain High, while race leader Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) preserved his race lead on what is likely the race’s final decisive day for the general classification.
On a stage that began in temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the 24-year-old Colombian rode clear of his daylong breakaway companions with 6km to go, winning the race’s sixth stage with a 13-second advantage over David De la Cruz (NetApp-Endura).
American Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp) finished third on the stage, 41 seconds down, the last of the day’s six-man breakaway to finish ahead of the remnants of the main bunch.
Orica’s Adam Yates finished fourth on the stage, 53 seconds down, in front of Wiggins, who not only defended his lead over second-place rider Rohan Dennis (Garmin-Sharp), but also extended it by two seconds.
The day’s breakaway included Chaves, Danielson, De la Cruz, Jack Bobridge (Belkin), Chris Jones (UnitedHealthcare), and Javier Megias (Novo Nordisk).
“Everyone in the break was dangerous, it wasn’t an ideal breakaway today so we had to ride straight from the start and make sure they didn’t get too much time,” Wiggins said. “It was quite dangerous.”
Though the stage featured almost 12,000 feet of climbing, it was always going to come down to the climb to Mountain High ski resort, with its 4,000-foot elevation gain over the final 40km (24 miles).
Once on the climb, Jones and Megias were the first riders dropped. Behind, four Sky riders drove the chase — Danny Pate, Christian Knees, Joe Dombrowksi, and Josh Edmondson — their jerseys unzipped and flapping in the hot wind.
Also in the dwindling front group were: Dennis, Ben King, and Janier Acevedo (Garmin-Sharp); Michael Schar and Peter Stetina (BMC Racing); Tiago Machado (NetApp); Carson Jones (Optum-Kelly Benefits); Lawson Craddock (Giant-Shimano), and Yates (Orica-GreenEdge).
From the dwindling peloton, Garmin’s King attacked, attempting to bridge across to Danielson. Behind, Sky didn’t flinch, while Dennis sat poised on Wiggins’ wheel.
Up ahead, Bobridge dropped from the breakway, leaving three men off the front, with a three-minute advantage and 10km to go. The former world pursuit champion clawed his way back on with 5.7km to go, prompting Chaves, the 2011 Tour de l’Avenir champion, to attack, shedding Bobridge, De la Cruz, and finally Danielson.
“I knew that the last kilometers of the climb were steep, and I felt good today,” Chaves said. “When I attacked at first, I was not thinking of winning. I only knew in the last three kilometers that I could win. I knew some riders worked really hard at the start of the climb, so I thought I could try. It’s important to try. To win here with riders like Tom [Danielson], it is fantastic.”
Further back, Dombrowski went to the front and set a blistering pace, spreading out the small group single file. Acevedo jumped from the group with 4km to go, attempting to bridge the 1:30 gap to two leaders — De la Cruz fought his way past Danielson and momentarily clawed his way back up to Chaves.
“I just wanted to make it as hard as possible for Sky, and so with me up the road, they had to chase hard,” Danielson said. “I went with every breakaway to try to blow them up, and then I drove the breakaway as hard as I could all day. I wasn’t really thinking about the stage, I was just thinking about Rohan. It was about trying to break the other teams. [On the final climb] I was pretty tired from the whole day. I wasn’t thinking about myself, I was thinking about the whole team and the GC overall.”
With 3km left and Dombrowski again on the front, Acevedo was reeled in, with Stetina sitting second wheel. The BMC rider attacked, momentarily putting Wiggins into trouble, as Dombrowski left his team leader to follow Stetina’s wheel. But Wiggins played it cool, allowing the gap to open, which Dennis closed with Wiggins on his wheel.
“Surprisingly, I was pretty comfortable with 4k to go,” Wiggins said. “Then the altitude kicked in.”
Dennis, who started the day 28 seconds down on Wiggins, knew he’d have one opportunity to attack in the final kilometers and make it stick, and in that moment, the opportunity seemingly came and went.
“I just faked that I was a bit dead for minute to get Pete [Stetina] to attack, and that just finished Pete off,” Wiggins said.
From there, Wiggins took a turn on the front that was too powerful for anyone to respond.
“After that, I knew I could wind it up to the line,” Wiggins said. “It was a little bit of tactical bluffing, and it worked.”
Yates brought the group across the line, with Wiggins on his wheel. Dennis crossed two seconds later; he now sits 30 seconds down on Wiggins, his shot at the overall win likely over.
“We had Tommy D off the front, so we were watching what Sky were doing,” Dennis said. “Hopefully, they were riding hard and they would just blow up like they did on Diablo. But, it wasn’t quite as steady an uphill, there was some downhill to recover. But when we got up to the last kilometer, I don’t think I’ve pedaled like that for a while.”
Craddock, who is the race’s best young rider, finished 23 seconds behind Wiggins to move into third overall, 1:18 behind Dennis and 14 seconds ahead of Machado.
“The whole team all day really, once again, the guys rode all day to keep the break at four minutes and then on the last climb, everyone from Danny Pate, Christian Knees, and then Joe at the end there,” Wiggins said. “It was an incredible team effort throughout the day to put me in that position in the final kilometer to wind out the legs.”
Saturday’s stage 7, from Santa Clarita to Pasadena, features two significant climbs in the Angeles National Forest, however the last climb tops out 31 miles from the finish, with the final 30 miles all downhill, to the three three-mile finishing circuits in Pasadena. A bunch sprint is expected, with little change on GC likely. The race ends Sunday in Thousand Oaks, after a hilly circuit race that includes three ascents — and descents — of the popular Rock Store climb.
“The job’s not done,” Wiggins said. “We’re 90 percent there, and just get through the next few days and just focus again and get the job done.”
Jen See contributed to this race report.