For the Tour of California’s final stage, the HTC-Columbia defense won’t rest

HTC-Columbia will have to withstand a barrage of attacks from RadioShack and Garmin-Transitions to keep Michael Rogers in the lead. Rogers says his team is more than up to the task.

Amgen Tour of California fans are used to seeing the faces of Chris Horner, Janiz Brajkovic and Jason McCartney working on the front to protect Levi Leipheimer’s overall lead. Sunday they will see a local team on the point and the RadioShack riders, along with their Garmin-Transitions counterparts, on the attack.

Michael Rogers (HTC-Columbia) will enter the eighth and final stage of this year’s race with his largest advantage of the week. The three-time world time trial champion has rediscovered his form against the clock this season and put nine seconds into Dave Zabriskie (Garmin-Transitions) and distanced Leipheimer to 24 seconds in Saturday’s ITT.

(Related: Rogers defends lead in Los Angeles time trial)

“Considering tomorrow, it ain’t over by any stretch,” said Leipheimer at the finish Saturday.

The Thousand Oaks/Westlake Village/Agoura Hills circuit race is no joke.

“We will have to have our wits about us because obviously the whole race is going to throw at us what they have,” said Rogers. “We have a lot of experience, not only the riders, but our sports directors. They’ve got years and years of experience; we can use all of that to defend.”

What we will likely see on the first circuit of the day is a series of attacks from the Garmin-Transitions and RadioShack riders placed below the top tier on GC. Horner and Peter Stetina fit that bill and will likely try their hardest to soften up the legs of the HTC contingent.

“It’s not over until it’s over,” said Zabriskie. “(Sunday)’s a very hard course. I’ve surveyed the course. It can be windy and there are a couple of good climbs; not that much fun.”

Rogers will have with him stage 7 winner Tony Martin and Tejay Van Garderen, to whom he owes much credit for his overall lead. Van Garderen gave up a wheel during stage 2 to keep Rogers in the lead group when he flatted without service support. Lars Bak is climbing well right now and the pitches of Mulholland Highway are not steep enough to dislodge him or Bert Grabsch until later in the day.

HTC-Columbia will of course do its best to limit any breakaway advantage. King of the Mountains Thomas Rabou (Team Type 1) is hoping to make the break, as is Kiel Reijnen (Jelly Belly-Kenda). Directors Alan Peiper and Rolf Aldag will likely assign Grabsch and Bernhard Eisel to cover those early moves, leaving the faster uphill men to protect Rogers in the GC group as the kilometers drag on.

“We can expect a lot of attacks from guys that are a bit further down in the general classification ranks,” said Rogers. “It’ll be my team’s job to cover them.”

Rogers will focus on the big dogs in the overall. Only an attack by Leipheimer or Zabriskie is likely to draw him out. “My job tomorrow is just to mark the top GC guys,” he said. “I’m very confident with Bert Grabsch, Bernie Eisel, young Tejay, Tony; I think we’ve got a strong team.”

Rogers will need that strong team. The circuit climbs approximately 1,200 vertical feet each lap and  it is entirely possible that an early move could get away and stick it to the line. That depends on the winds we see on Mulholland — with high winds coming off the Pacific, a small, long break will be hard pressed to be the first of the race to find the finish ahead of the bunch.

With Zabriskie within striking distance of Rogers’ lead, HTC is likely to be happy in allowing a move to survive to the finish so  Zabriskie has no chance of getting a finish time bonus. There are a total of 16 seconds available in bonuses during the stage and Rogers will want to see that his GC rivals are unable to make a run at any of the intermediate sprints or the stage finish.

Rogers was confident Saturday that if he can limit his rivals’ time bonuses, he will defend his lead on the final run-in to Thousand Oaks. “Obviously it isn’t a huge lead,” said Rogers. “It’s still nine seconds. Nine seconds, if you count out in meters, it’s a long way.”

Perhaps the most critical portion of Sunday’s circuit is the short, sharp ramp leading to the KOM point atop Mulholland. A narrow, technical descent leads to the flat final kilometers in Thousand Oaks and a well-placed attack on this ramp could spring a rider free for the plunge to the finish. Garmin teammates Ryder Hesjedal and Zabriskie go downhill very well; if one of them sneaks away before the descent, they could very well put enough time into the HTC chase to wrestle the jersey away on the final day.

With a challenging circuit, a tight GC and Garmin and Radioshack both with multiple riders close to the overall lead, Sunday’s circuit race shapes up to be the most explosive stage of the race. Rogers has confidence in his team, though, and with the test ahead of them, that faith will be tried.