Alaphilippe chasing redemption in California

A year after finishing 3 seconds out of first, Julian Alaphilippe is leading the Tour of California by 22 seconds with four stages left.

Altitude, a time trial, and a former hour record holder stand between Julian Alaphilippe and a redemptive win at the Amgen Tour of California.

“I’m not a pessimist. I’m always an optimist. But I’m a realist, also. Rohan Dennis is a specialist in the time trial,” the young Frenchman said after Wednesday’s stage 4, sitting in paddock 15 at the Laguna Seca raceway. “I don’t train so much with the TT bike. I think Rohan is much stronger than me. I do my best not to lose too much time.”

Dennis isn’t the only rider close enough to snag the overall lead. Trek – Segafredo’s Peter Stetina sits 22 seconds back, LottoNL – Jumbo’s George Bennet is at 37, and Dennis’ BMC Racing teammate Brent Bookwalter is at 40. Dennis is 1:01 behind, but with a 20-kilometer time trial looming, his time trial prowess makes him an acute threat.

Alaphilippe lost the 2015 race by just 3 seconds to Peter Sagan after finishing 19 seconds behind the Slovak in the Big Bear Lake time trial. He’s not a bad time trialist — he was third on the stage last year. But that TT was half the length of the out-and-back he’ll face in Folsom on Friday, and better suited to his style.

To defend in the TT, Alaphilippe will first have to get through a difficult stage to Lake Tahoe on Thursday. The route slowly climbs from sea level to nearly 8,000 feet, and then finishes at 6,500 feet with a short climb.

“Tomorrow is not a foregone conclusion at all,” Bookwalter said of the course. “It’s a ton of climbing, and a hard uphill push for the line.”

That uphill push is about a kilometer long and suits a punchy climber like Alaphilippe, if his legs are good. But that’s far from guaranteed at altitude. He was unusually quiet in Wednesday’s finale, too, and indicated that he wasn’t feeling plucky.

“Today, on the last climb, I felt not so good,” he said. “But I think [that was the same for] everybody because it was really warm and fast. I think tomorrow is going to be a hard day. But we will see.”