Look for Bradley Wiggins on front up the Mountain...

Amgen Tour podium on the line at Mountain High

Bradley Wiggins comes into Friday in yellow, but he'll have to battle to keep it from the clutches of Garmin-Sharp's Rohan Dennis

For Bradley Wiggins, the Amgen Tour of California isn’t yet over. As good as Wiggins has looked, there’s still one more fight to finish: the beyond category climb up Mountain High on Friday.

The Sky captain and Amgen Tour race leader has looked a consummate professional thus far in his quest for the California overall. He was dominant in the time trial, and rode strong when isolated up Mount Diablo, parting with half of his GC lead to Garmin-Sharp’s Rohan Dennis, who is now 28 seconds down in second place.

It’s hard to conceptualize any riders from the podium fray overtaking Wiggins or Dennis. Presently, Tiago Machado (NetApp-Endura) and Lawson Craddock (Giant-Shimano) find themselves in the best positions to reach up; Machado is 1:09 off Wiggins, with Craddock 1:25 back.

This means that Friday’s stage 6 is shaping up to potentially showcase three separate battles: that for the overall victory, the stage win, and the likely final spot on the podium.

The stage will be one of the Amgen Tour’s most difficult, at 151 kilometers long and nearly 12,000 feet of climbing. The finish comes atop Mountain High, a ski area outside of Los Angeles, nestled at over 7,000 feet above sea level. The finish comes after a very hard 1.2 mile climb, all after the peloton has climbed steadily for the last 40 kilometers. The weather forecast is calling for a high of 98 degrees in the start town of Santa Clarita, elevation 1,200 feet, and a high of 69 degrees at the summit of Mountain High.

While the earlier climbing in the stage is more metronomic, the final ramps up the finish line are steep, and will put pressure on Wiggins. Up Diablo, he said he rode a hard, steady tempo to discourage attacks, and the plan largely worked, but he was swarmed up Diablo’s very steep final kick and parted with 20 seconds to Dennis, a rider in Wiggins’ same mold but unencumbered with defending a jersey. A similar strategy may play out Friday afternoon. Wiggins was isolated early on Diablo, and had to establish tempo for himself, leaving his rivals to tuck into his slipstream, conserving watts for late, lead-eating surges.

Garmin finds itself in best position to unseat Sir Wiggins. Dennis is its GC ace and proved he’s able to hang behind Wiggins, saving bullets, and then leap away in the closing meters. The Mountain High finish is ripe for a repeat of Diablo, if Wiggins finds himself alone again. The Sky team will again attempt to rally around its leader and hang around a bit longer, though three more days of defending the jersey will surely have taken a toll.

It will be a defensive day for Sky, certainly, while the Garmin riders likely unroll an offensive that will force Sky to work throughout the hard, uphill day. The team could slip Tom Danielson or Janier Acevedo up the road and let Dennis sit on Wiggins’ wheel.

“It’s going to have different challenges, that race. But the altitude will play a factor there, finishing at over 2,000 meters,” Wiggins said earlier this week.

Two other riders, Machado and Craddock, could make waves, but it seems their struggle is destined to determine third place, if Wiggins and Dennis hold true to their form from this week in California. Craddock and Machado would each need to put a minute into the Tour de France champ Wiggins to unseat him; certainly a big ask for the youthful Craddock, in his first season with Giant-Shimano.

There is of course another prize, in the stage win. Certainly the finish suits an outright climber, though the cream of this crop in California seems to be atop its GC, and Wiggins displayed brutal tempo that discouraged long-range attacks from even the lithest of men. This is a steeper finishing climb than Diablo, so a climber like Acevedo could jump free the peloton’s clutches. Whether he might then link up with Dennis and attempt to gap Wiggins will all depend on how the two strongest men are climbing on the sixth stage of what has been a very hot, very dynamic Tour of California.