RadioShack-Nissan gearing up for GC battle in California

Chris Horner and company are laying their cards on the table and waiting for someone to call

LIVERMORE, California (VN) — With Thursday’s stage 5 time trial looming on the horizon, followed by stage 6 into Big Bear and the stage 7 summit finish on Mount Baldy, RadioShack-Nissan is preparing for a GC battle at the Amgen Tour of California in defense of Chris Horner’s 2011 title.

While Liquigas-Cannondale’s Peter Sagan has won the first three stages and earned himself a total of 30 seconds in time bonuses, the early stages of the fight for GC supremacy have begun to take shape within the peloton.

Though he’s coming off a broken leg, three-time winner Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) has proven himself able to race within the front group.

Garmin-Barracuda has been aggressive, massing at the front during the latter parts of stages 2 and 3, both to set up Heinrich Haussler and to protect GC leaders Tom Danielson and Andrew Talansky — and possibly set up a few days in the golden leader’s jersey for TT specialist Dave Zabriskie.

BMC Racing’s GC leader Tejay van Garderen has looked strong, though he suffered a blow when he lost teammates Steve Morabito and Stephen Cummings, who were unable to start Tuesday due to injuries sustained in Santa Cruz during the final 5km of stage 2.

Horner’s team also suffered a blow in that crash when national road champion Matthew Busche, who was instrumental to Horner’s performance on Baldy in 2011, went down. However, Busche told VeloNews after Tuesday’s stage that he expects to be able to ride at full strength following Thursday’s time trial.

“I’m feeling OK,” Busche said. “I took a chainring to the shoulder, and I put some Steri-Strips on that. Something landed on my leg, maybe a top tube, and it’s sore and bruised, but I’m doing OK. Mount Baldy is several days out. I should be healed up by then.”

The tactical battle between RadioShack and Omega Pharma, which flared up early on stage 1 when Leipheimer told Horner that his team would not contribute to the pace-making, appeared to subside Tuesday after Omega Pharma lined up at the front for its sprinter Tom Boonen, who finished third in Livermore behind Sagan and Haussler.

“Today was the first day Omega took some responsibility,” Busche said. “It was good to see them doing some work.”

Prior to stage 3, RadioShack was doing everything in its power to avoid riding in the defense of a race lead it does not yet have.

“It’s like everyone is playing poker, except us,” said Jens Voigt. “Everyone is holding his cards, and ours are all on the table — there’s no bluffing. We have American sponsors and they want us to be good here. We have the defending champion, so we have to straighten up our backs, and we have to carry that burden. We knew coming here with Chris as defending champion there was going to be a lot of responsibility. That’s just how racing goes.”

Horner said he has been pleased with his team, as well as the work that Liquigas and Garmin had done to control the race.

“I like the way Garmin is racing,” Horner said. “It seems like they are racing for Zabriskie to take the jersey, as well as for Talansky or Danielson for GC. I think Zabriskie has a great shot to take the jersey for a day, or maybe two days. He’s a fabulous rider, a big gun in the peloton. Garmin is doing a really good job.”

As for the impending GC battle that begins in earnest on Friday, Horner is sticking to his pre-race predictions, some of which have already proven true — that Sagan would win most, if not all, of the stages other than the time trial and Mount Baldy, where the overall will be decided.

“If my legs are good now, they are gonna be good on Baldy,” Horner said. “I’m gonna lose some time after the time trial and will probably be sitting in sixth, or eighth, or 10th. And the guys sitting in the top five are gonna have to do something at the beginning of Baldy, and at some point in time I’m gonna have to make up 30 to 50 seconds.”

Asked who he sees as the top GC favorites after three days of racing, Horner said it’s still tough to say.

“No one knows for sure but Talansky will throw in a good time trial,” he said. “He’s shown he’s a GC contender, but I’m not certain how he will go on Baldy, I’ve never seen him on a climb that steep with the best in the world. He’ll be extra motivated coming from [second overall at the Tour de Romandie]. Danielson looks really smooth, he’s in all same spots that I am. Levi looked better today than the first two stages, I’m not going to write him off, and the time trial will be ideal for him. Maybe [Rabobank’s Laurens Ten Dam] comes through — he’s like me, not the best in the time trial, he might go top 10, and then he’ll need to make up time on Baldy. And who knows, maybe Sagan surprises us all in the time trial, but I think his days are numbered past the time trial.”

So far, Horner’s prediction that Sagan would win “four or five” stages is proving dead-on. How his GC predictions will roll out, and what that will mean for his RadioShack team, remains to be seen.