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Sprinter showdown: Gaviria takes round two in California

ELK GROVE, California (VN) — Round one of the sprinters’ battle royale at the Tour of California went to Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) in the opening stage of the race. Round two came down to a fast finish in Thursday’s stage 5.

Different day. Different location. Same result.

Gaviria hit the front early on the final straightaway in Elk Grove and held out for the final 200 meters to nab his second win of the race and sixth victory so far this year. Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott) and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) finished second and third, just as they had in stage 1 in Long Beach.

Ill-timed mechanicals derailed the chances of Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) and Marcel Kittel (Dimension Data) on Thursday, but that may have simply made for a more chaotic finish as other rivals saw their chances of a surprise win go up.

Whatever the circumstances, the outcome was clear: Round two to Gaviria and Quick-Step.

With the Tour de France less than two months away, the flat stages at the Tour of California are prime opportunities for the sprinters to get in gear and prove their form. So far Gaviria is the class of the bunch — although the 23-year-old Colombian speedster downplayed any Tour de France implications of his team’s California success after the stage.

“It’s really long before the Tour. [We still] need preparation, need condition,” he said after his stage 5 victory.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to characterize Quick-Step’s sprinting performances as anything other than dominance so far. That’s a trend that goes back to the start of the season. Whether it’s been with Gaviria or teammate Elia Viviani leading the way, Quick-Step has been flying in the fast finishes since January.

A big part of that has come down to well-executed lead outs. Quick-Step has put its impressive lead out chops on display time and time again in 2018, and the Belgium-based squad is serving up more of the same in California. The team controlled the race into the Long Beach finale in stage 1, and again put Gaviria into perfect position in Elk Grove for stage 5.

“It was the plan to go from like 200 meters out,” lead out man Max Richeze told VeloNews. “We knew that there were really strong trains here. We bet on going a bit long to put our chance out front and not risk ending up blocked in.

“We came in really strong. We did what we’d planned to do.”

Still, Gaviria’s success is not just about his lead out being better than his rivals’. As the Colombian noted after his win, teams can’t really organize long orderly lead out trains in a hectic finish with multiple corners.

In other words, Gaviria himself is clearly in good form for the Tour of California.

“He’s obviously going really well at the moment,” said Ewan of his sprinting rival. “He’s always a tough opposition for me to beat. I don’t know if there’s much that my team can do. Maybe I just need to go a little bit faster.”

All of Gaviria’s top sprinting rivals will almost certainly be going faster in July. Cavendish is still working his way back into form after a serious crash at Milano-Sanremo. By July he should be in much better shape. California is Ewan’s first race since Milano-Sanremo. He has said all week that he still has a little way to go before he reaches peak form for the season’s biggest race.

As Kittel told VeloNews this week, “It doesn’t really matter what happens before the Tour.” It’s only the Tour that matters.

Be that as it may, Gaviria clearly has the edge at the moment, and that’s worth something. It will make things less stressful for Gaviria in the run-up to his Tour de France debut. He and his team can be confident that their tactics are working. They can focus on more minor tweaks in the coming weeks. They can make it through post-race interviews without facing questions of form.

Gaviria’s rivals will have one more opportunity at the Tour of California to join him in that happy place. After Friday’s stage 6 slog to South Lake Tahoe, the race concludes with a sprinter-friendly finale in Sacramento on Saturday.

All eyes will be on Gaviria in the California capital.

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