Consistency bodes well for Orica sprinter Leigh Howard in California

Former world track champion Leigh Howard is finding his legs with Orica-GreenEdge and hoping to find the top of the podium at the Amgen Tour

SANTA CRUZ, California (VN) — Leigh Howard (Orica-GreenEdge) is learning quickly that in the sprint, the devil’s in the details.

While enjoying a consistent Amgen Tour of California thus far, he has twice lost out to Slovakian Peter Sagan. Howard took fourth place on Sunday in the bunch sprint into Santa Rosa and third today into Aptos.

The 22-year-old is pure class on the track: He won world championships in the omnium in 2009 and the madison in 2010 and 2011. His speed is unquestioned, but he’s finding that closing out road sprints in the pro field is increasingly difficult.

“When I do get to the finish in bike races like this, I’ve got that sprint that I used to have when I was younger. It’s still there, but I just have to stay in touch with it so I can beat guys like [Peter Sagan] and [Heinrich] Haussler at the finish,” he told VeloNews after losing to Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale).

Howard wasn’t expecting Monday’s stage to shake out into a sprint, but once it became clear he was in the final group he took aim at the win.

“We spoke about it. I thought about it. I knew there was a right-hand corner with 150 meters to go. It was my decision [that] I wanted to be in that corner first. I know they finished a stage here two years ago and the first to that corner won,” he said.

Howard led the bunch into the final, right-hand corner a few hundred meters from the line and went inside. But Sagan took the outside line around the bend and came over the top of the Aussie at its exit. When Sagan stood up, it was all over, just as it was a day before. Then Haussler (Garmin-Barracuda) nipped Howard for second on the line.

The Amgen Tour results show there’s no doubting the Aussie’s speed and that he’s got plenty of upside on a deep Orica-GreenEdge squad.

His next race after California is the Critérium du Dauphiné. Howard said he would be working on his climbing for the Dauphiné, but hoped to keep his sprint firing. “I don’t want to lose that sprint that I was born with,” he said.

If the first two stages are any indication, he’s done anything but lost that sprint and he should get another crack this week at a win.