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SAN FRANCISCO, California (VN) — When Bradley Wiggins won Monday’s 20-kilometer time trial in Folsom by 44 seconds, he made it clear he was the strongest man at the Amgen Tour of California, with a seemingly insurmountable lead on the general classification.
And when Wiggins drove a strong tempo at the front of a select group with 5km remaining on Mount Diablo Tuesday, shedding riders behind him, it looked as though the Sky rider was also unbeatable in the mountains.
Wiggins looked to be confirming his supremacy — a Tour de France and multiple-time Olympic champion among mere mortals — and relegating any suspense for the remainder of the Amgen Tour to that of stage wins, and final podium finishers.
But then something happened. The gradient kicked up, and Wiggins, who had been isolated for much of the final 10km, was swarmed by a group of hungry GC contenders anxious to claw back time on the race leader.
Suddenly, Wiggins’ vulnerabilities were exposed.
In just 400 meters, stage winner Rohan Dennis (Garmin-Sharp), second to Wiggins in the time trial, halved the GC margin between the two, to bring their time differential to 24 seconds.
“My mission was to be in a position to limit any losses and not explode,” Wiggins said. “It is why I was riding tempo making sure no one got up the road. … We did this climb a little over a week ago. I knew how it kicked up the last 300 meters.”
Two other riders, Tiago Machado (NetApp-Endura) and Lawson Craddock (Giant-Shimano), sit over one minute down, with fifth-placed Adam Yates (Orica-GreenEdge) more than two minutes back.
No, the race for the overall win is not wide open. However, after Tuesday’s summit finish, it’s an interesting two-man battle, and not the blowout some had anticipated following Monday’s time trial.
Even Dennis had seemed resigned that the battle for the overall was likely over, conceding on Monday that his chances for the GC win were slim, but that he believed his chances for the overall podium were very good.
Those chances were exponentially better atop Diablo, where Dennis enjoyed the double satisfaction of a stage win and a much more realistic GC differential.
“I knew after the effort he did, he [Wiggins] wouldn’t be able to punch and win the stage,” Dennis said. “I was waiting, and hoping the attacks would start at 5K, or 3K to go, actually. But Bradley knew it had to go hard then, to make people think twice about [attacking].”
It was a much-needed boost of morale for Garmin, which saw four of its riders crash heavily last week at the Giro d’Italia’s opening team time trial, forcing two men, Daniel Martin and Koldo Fernandez, to exit the race with broken collarbones.
Though he is only 23, Dennis is no stranger to battling for GC in major UCI stage races. A former member of Australia’s world champion team pursuit squad, the 6-foot, 160-pound Dennis won the overall at the inaugural Tour of Alberta last year; he also placed fifth overall at the 2012 Santos Tour Down Under, when he was just 21.
With five stages remaining, and the next major GC battle expected in stage 6 on Friday, Dennis now sits in perfect position.
Wiggins still leads by 24 seconds; Sky will ride at the front to defend his lead, while Garmin can shelter behind the British squad, preserving energy. And Dennis sits ahead of Machado by over 40 seconds, a comfortable margin that allows him to focus on Wiggins rather than on preserving second place overall.
The finish on Friday, at Mountain High, is steeper, and at a much higher elevation than Diablo. Assistance from teammates will be crucial on Mountain High, and it’s likely that, after another three days of riding at the front, Sky’s domestiques will be tired. Wiggins could again be isolated on the final climb, while Garmin has several strong climbers, including Janier Acevedo, Phil Gaimon, and Tom Danielson, who will aim to help Dennis in the most important moments of the stage.
“It does give me a bit of confidence [for the overall],” Dennis said. “But I think, now, that Sky will almost ask us to help out, and tactically that will keep more of their guys for the finishing climbs. It will be harder to isolate Brad from here on out.”
Wiggins may well be the strongest rider in the race, but on Tuesday, his young Sky team was unable to simultaneously defend the leader’s jersey and also preserve a climber for the final kilometers. Likewise, Wiggins was unable to respond to accelerations when the road really kicked up.
“It was a tough climb,” Wiggins said. “Every day is a tough day when you’re in yellow.”
Wiggins may still win the Amgen Tour of California, but after Mount Diablo, it’s far from assured. It’s now, very much, a two-man race.