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To break away or not? That’s the big question in California

What are the ingredients for a successful escape at the Tour of California?

STOCKTON, California (VN) — As Evan Huffman signed in for Tuesday’s stage 3 of the Amgen Tour of California, you could tell the Rally-UHC breakaway specialist was thinking about one thing.

When should he attack today?

Huffman spent much of Monday’s second stage of the Amgen Tour of California attacking into breakaways. Huffman went with the first move, just 8km into the stage. After that group was caught, Huffman attacked again into a front group of 15 riders.

“I’m going to give it another go—it could be a breakaway day today,” Huffman told VeloNews. “It just comes down to who is aggressive on the climbs.”

Every few years the Amgen Tour of California sees a dramatic breakaway victory: in 2017 Huffman scored two. Every year, there is a simmering debate about the Tour of California’s route: Does it cater to breakaway riders?

This year is no different. Organizers have amassed a challenging course with only one true GC day and just two sprint days. The four other days feature lumpy, mountainous profiles that often cater to breakaway riders.

Riders and team directors gave mixed opinions on whether the 2019 route is more or less friendly to breakaways than in years past.

“I don’t think the course this year suits the breakaways—I don’t think we’ll see any make it this year,” said Ben King (Dimension Data), himself a former breakaway winner here. “I think the sprint teams will be able to control it for the sprinters.”

“I think it’s equally, if not slightly more, friendly to breakaways than in years past,” Huffman said. “There are a lot of stages that look a little too hard for the sprinters and only one true summit finish.”

“It’s an interesting edition with several stages that can can go either way,” said Toms Skujins (Trek-Segafredo). “It just comes down to team plans—who missed out on the sprints and who really needs to win.”

Lumpy profiles but long distances

A quick glance at the 2019 Amgen Tour of California courses reveals a basic breakdown: one summit finish, two flattish sprint stages, and four lumpy stages that all feature topographic curveballs that could spring breaks. Monday’s stage to Lake Tahoe punished riders’ legs with 14,500 feet of climbing; it also gave breakaway riders multiple ramps to attack.

Tuesday’s stage from Stockton to Morgan Hill included the Category 1 climb of Mount Hamilton. In the past, this climb has produced both breakaway wins and dramatic GC battles. But organizers included 15km of flat terrain at the end, a feature that gives an advantage to a chase.

“That 15km extra will let things come back together—I think it will be a reduced sprint,” King said about the Hamilton stage. “Hamilton will definitely blow things up, but it’s not going to be a breakaway day.”

Thursday’s stage to Ventura includes a 15 percent climb just 5km from the finish, which could spring a daring attack in the finale. And finally, Sunday’s final stage into Pasadena begins with a slog through the San Gabriel Mountains, which is destined to produce attacks.

There’s another basic and important metric buried within the California route: the potential breakaway stages are extremely long. Stage 2 was 214km; stage 3 is 208km; stage 5 is 220km. The final stage is just 126km, however it packs in two categorized climbs.

The long distance, when matched with California’s wide roads, gives the advantage to the chasers, who can rest in the peloton for much of the day.

“Once you go over 180km, the guys from the breakaway really start to suffer. You throw in an HC climb and the peloton will start to go fast,” said Dirk Demol, director of Katusha-Alpecin. “Sometimes with 160km stages you have more of a chance for breakaways. Here it is 200km for days in a row.”

Motivation of the bunch

Despite the hurdles facing the breakaways, multiple riders told VeloNews that they plan to roll the dice at some point during this year’s race. Skujins declined to reveal which stages he would target, but confirmed that he had the green light to attack. Huffman is chasing the KOM jersey, which means he is committed to breakaway riding. Reigning U.S. champion Jonny Brown said that attacking into a breakaway was the entire focus of his Hagens Berman-Axeon squad at this year’s race.

“No matter what the course is, the early breakaway is what we’re looking to get into,” Brown said.

In European racing, breakaways often form after a chaotic start. In American racing, the first group is sometimes the one that sticks. So, how does one attack into a breakaway in the United States? Skujins said the easiest method involves an immense burst of energy.

“The easiest way is to wait until the move has 20 seconds on the peloton, and then just attack on the opposite side of the road where nobody is sitting,” Skujins said. “You just bridge across. It’s really hard and I don’t recommend that.”

The other major component that decides a breakaway’s fate is the motivation of the group. Will the peloton give chase, or simply let the gap grow?

Monday’s intense battle to Lake Tahoe could have an outside impact on the fate of breakaways through the rest of the week. The battle whittled down the GC battle and knocked more than half of the pack out of contention. Skujins dropped nearly 30 minutes to the GC favorites, and Huffman more than 8 minutes. The huge time gaps mean they are no longer dangerous to the overall.

Thus, the motivation to chase could come down to the sprint teams. However, the lumpy terrain could drop the heavy sprinters out of the group early in the stages. And if that happens, don’t be surprised if a breakaway survives all the way to the line.

“I think you just have to be really aggressive, and realize it’s not going to be an easy day,” Huffman said. “And yeah, you might get caught.”