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Tour of California contenders primed for Baldy showdown

Thursday's route to the top of the finishing climb will prove decisive in the GC standings, but it won't decide the race's outcome.

SANTA CLARITA, California (VN) — The queen stage looms. Thursday’s route to the top of Mt. Baldy will not resolve the Amgen Tour of California, but it will set the chess pieces in place ahead of an inevitable time trial clash in Big Bear. Seven riders are still in contention for the overall, and neither want to be placed in check on Baldy’s slopes.

Monday’s breakaway over Mt. Hamilton created an intriguing dynamic. Four mediocre time trialists — Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo), Ian Boswell (Sky), and Lachlan Morton (Dimension Data) — hold a narrow advantage over Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing) and Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac), both of whom are good against the clock. The climbers need to extend their lead and the time trialists need to shrink it. The status quo isn’t good for anyone.

The stage is short, 125km, and contains two major climbs, including the steep uphill finish on Baldy. It heads uphill immediately, and the route has the potential to generate chaos similar to that of the infamous Formigal stage of last year’s Vuelta, according to Talansky.

Predictions are further complicated by the fact that we haven’t yet seen all the GC contenders face off. Bookwalter and Talansky were physically able to make Monday’s breakaway but chose not to. “We didn’t go near full gas up Hamilton,” Talansky said after the stage. Not even close. Both riders simply hoped the group would come back together. And so the relative form of the front four and their two chasers is somewhat unknown. Then you throw in Robert Gesink, Bennett’s LottoNL teammate, who won’t be able to claw back much time in the TT. He will surely attack Baldy.

We do have some indication of who is likely to perform. “I’d have to say that George [Bennett] and Majka are riding really well,” Boswell said, pointing at the two riders to finish in front of him on Monday. “On Hamilton, they were pushing the pace and they were definitely comfortable when I was not as comfortable. But we’ll see. It’s hard to say why other guys missed that move and whether they thought it would come back or thought it wasn’t necessary.”

Out of the four, Majka is the best time trialist. He was taking the longest and hardest pulls in the breakaway, according to Boswell, indicating that he’s on form. And his gap is the largest, 48 seconds to Talansky and Bookwalter and 45 to Gesink. Morton may be the best climber and has the most to gain from a Baldy attack.

Still, Majka looks to be the man to beat. His palmares is a few pages longer than that of any of his Monday breakaway companions and he’s the least likely to lose big chunks of time in the TT.

“He’s kind of in the drivers seat, and it’s up to the other three to take time out of him,” Talansky said. “They’re looking at each other, trying to figure out of those four who the best time trialist is going to be. And the maybe they’re looking back and me and Brent and saying, ‘OK that’s maybe still in shooting distance.’”

Shooting distance is perhaps one minute, presuming Bookwalter and Talansky have good TT rides. Neither will be able to take much more than that over 24km.

That means the top of Mt. Baldy will likely be the most crucial 20 minutes of the week-long race, as it has often been in the past. “Last time we got to the bottom of Baldy everyone was already on their hands and knees,” Bookwalter said. “And then it’s just a battle to the death to the top.”