The 2019 Amen Tour of California is in the books. So, what did we learn from the latest trip across the Golden State?
Organizers wondered whether or not to present champagne to 20-year-old Tadej Pogačar after Saturday’s stage, since he cannot legally drink in the United States. Pogačar’s victory capped a week of impressive results by young riders; Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) was the only stage winner over the age of 25.
On four stages writers had to pen the obligatory “This is his first WorldTour victory” line after a mention of the stage winner: Kasper Asgreen and Remi Cavagna (Deceuninck-Quick Step), Ivan Garcia Cortina (Bahrain-Merida), and even Pogačar himself took their first WorldTour victories at this year’s race.
The success of young riders strengthen’s the California race’s reputation for being a race of the future. California has been an early proving ground for Egan Bernal, Julian Alaphilippe, and even Peter Sagan. The 2019 edition seemed to elevate younger riders even further. If past editions were dominated by controlled racing by experienced teams, this year featured an entirely new dynamic. Deceuninck-Quick Step freed its powerful young domestiques to embark on long and experimental breakaways. The GC battle came down to Pogačar and 22-year-old Sergio Higuita (EF Education First). Everywhere you looked, young riders were given opportunity and freedom.
And why not? California’s wide, straight roads may be the ideal laboratory for stars of the future to build confidence and experiment with new roles on their way to WorldTour greatness. Perhaps no rider exemplified this as much as Asgreen, who soared in the high mountains despite living in pan-flat Denmark and never completing a climbing camp. “Race of the future” isn’t a bad label for a race that, year-in and year-out, looks for ways to reinvent itself.
It’s a safe bet that we will see the young stars from this year’s race blossom into bonafide champions in the coming years. Garcia Cortina is an aspiring cobblestone crusher—so is Asgreen, who may have a future in stage racing as well. Stage 4 winner Fabio Jakobsen is Deceuninck’s new man for the sprints. An then there is Pogačar, perhaps the most exciting young stage racer in the peloton. There seems to be no limit to his potential.
EF’s losing streak continues
EF Education First came agonizingly close to winning the overall, falling just 16 seconds short to Pogačar with its new Colombian climbing star, Sergio Higuita. The result marks the sixth time in the race’s 14 editions that EF (Formerly Cannondale, Garmin, and Slipstream Sports) have finished second. The ascendance of Higuita is a bright spot for the squad, however the overall loss is a setback, considering the cast of heavy hitters that EF brought to the race.
EF was forced to burn its matches for much of the race. Tejay van Garderen’s second-place finish on stage 2 vaulted him into the yellow jersey, a move that made EF play defense for the next four stages, including the topsy turvy stage 4, which saw van Garderen crash, chase, and then receive the same time as the finishers. The team’s top climbers—Lachlan Morton, Rigoberto Uran, Lawson Craddock, and at times Higuita—had to roll on the front for four days.
When van Garderen cracked with 5km to the Mt. Baldy summit, fans in the race’s VIP tent gasped. Then, Higuita attacked to the roar of cheers. Higuita’s punishing surges brought about a question: Did EF back the wrong rider? Did those four stages of defending the jersey simply burn the squad’s legs out too soon? Armchair quarterbacking this decision is the right of any fan (and yes, writer), but the truth is we will never know. What we do know is that the California prize remains a white whale for the American WorldTour squad.
Van der Breggen back on top
Anna van der Breggen’s dominance in the women’s race was another reminder that the reigning road world champion is, indeed, the strongest force in the women’s peloton. Van der Breggen missed some of the early races this year to compete in the Absa Cape Epic mountain bike race. In her absence, her Dutch Boels-Dolmans team struggled—credit this more to the parity within women’s racing and not to van der Breggen’s absence.
Boels’s struggles continued at the hilly classics, where Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) won Amstel Gold Race and Annemike van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) dominated Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Last year, van der Breggen swept all three Ardennes classics.
Van der Breggen was untouchable in California. She sprung from the lead group of riders and survived a thumping headwind to win the opening stage. She bridged to her teammate, Katie Hall, on the stage 2 climb of Mt. Baldy, and then gifted the win to the American rider. Then, on stage 3, she completely controlled the race. Rather than sit and let her teammates chase, van der Breggen shut the gap to breakaway groups herself.
The impressive win could be a harbinger of a great battle at the Giro Rosa. Van der Breggen has not confirmed her start in the Italian race. If she does, look for a great fight between van Vleuten and van der Breggen.
Grumbles over long stages
This year organizers ditched the individual time trial and instead featured another 200km stage. Thus, the race opened with a short sprint stage, and then proceeded to feature four 200km-plus stages in a row. These long stages drew groans from the peloton, and riders finished each day with more groans about the outside fatigue delivered by the one-week race. The race started with 133 riders, and 118 made it to start the final stage.
Is the Amgen Tour of California too hard without an individual time trial? It’s debatable. The race is held on wide, straight roads, which creates a different dynamic than what riders face in Europe. Much of the day is spent riding in the peloton, with the climbs and finishes raced at a breakneck pace. Some riders told VeloNews that the ebb-and-flow of the race creates a more physically demanding challenge, since the crucial moments are actually faster and more competitive than similar events in Europe.
Pogačar wise beyond his years
Pogačar follows in a long list of Tour of California champions who appear destined to achieve great things in pro cycling. Pogačar is indeed a physical specimen, who was strong enough to make the final group on the punishing climb to Mt. Baldy. But it’s Pogačar’s racing intellect that won him the stage, and set him apart from the other 20-year-old riders in the field.
Pogačar recounted his stage win on Mt. Baldy, and revealed that he had anticipated the final tight left-hand turn, and thus approached it with less speed, which allowed him to attack Higuita on the inside for the win.
That move came after a tactical cat-and-mouse, which Pogačar appeared to play perfectly in the final three kilometers. Pogačar appears destined to win big WorldTour races in pro cycling. Fans of the Tour of California can say that they saw him win his first.