Sagan and Stetina rise to the top in California

Three weeks ago, Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Doimo) was at the Tour of Romandie, building for a projected start at the Giro d’Italia. Tuesday he defended his lead in the best young rider competition at the Amgen Tour of California. Peter Stetina (Garmin-Transitions) is the riders closest to him in the white jersey competition.

Three weeks ago, Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Doimo) was at the Tour of Romandie, building for a projected start at the Giro d’Italia. Tuesday he defended his lead in the best young rider competition at the Amgen Tour of California.

The neo-pro from Zilina, Slovakia, entered the day with a six-second advantage over Peter Stetina (Garmin-Transitions) and Andre Steensen (Saxo Bank) for the white jersey. Sagan took the group sprint from the first chase group, 17 seconds behind David Zabriskie (Garmin), Michael Rogers (HTC-Columbia) and Levi Leipheimer (Radioshack). Stetina tucked safely in the back of the group, while Steensen crashed hard and finished with the gruppetto, losing more than 16 minutes.

Sagan first hit radar screens at Paris-Nice in March, when he won two stages — one a group sprint from a thin selection on the mountainous stage 3 and the other a tough, uphill kick ahead of a 26-rider group. The field in the south of France was no joke; Sagan’s name appeared on the results sheets above riders like Alejandro Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez and Jens Voigt.

The 20-year old went on to finish fourth in the final young rider competition after stage 7. His teammate Roman Kreuzinger took the final white jersey in Moinard, 2:55 ahead of Sagan. Kreuzinger is co-leading the Liquigas squad at the Giro, having traded schedules with Sagan when Franco Pelizotti was excluded from the grand tour for abnormal blood values.

Sagan ticked up a notch in the young rider competition at the Tour de Romandie. He finished that race third for the jersey behind Simon Spilak (Lampre-Finesse) and Marcel Wyss (BMC Racing Team). En route to that result, Sagan finished second in the prologue and stage 4 and won stage 1.

“I’m very happy with how I’ve begun the season,” said Sagan. “I’ve had many successes and I look forward to more successes this year and in the future.”

Sagan appeared to be comfortable on the Bonny Doon climb Tuesday, though he was not in position to match the acceleration made by Leipheimer low on the ascent. “On the climb I felt good,” he said. “I had a teammate on the front with me on the climb and we drove it hard on the descent.”

Sagan came to the front of the chase occasionally as the group cut more than a minute out of the leaders’ advantage before the finish in Santa Cruz. For the most part, he remained hidden in the wheels near the front, and was fresh enough to take out the group sprint for fourth.

After stage 3, Sagan sits in fourth overall, 21 seconds in arrears of Zabriskie. His nearest rival – and perhaps only challenger – for the white jersey is Stetina, who is six seconds back.

“This race is both long and hard and I don’t know (about defending the jersey),” said Sagan. “There are many stages left to go, so we’ll have to wait and see out there.”

Stetina hopes to see Sagan in the rearview mirror when the queen stage arrives in Big Bear Lake Friday. Another neo-pro, Stetina has been on the roster with Jonathan Vaughters since the beginning of the Slipstream program in 2003. He graduated from the Holowesko Partners u23 roster this year and has started his pro career well.

Making the California roster was a central goal this spring for the 24-year-old, who relocated full-time from Colorado to Girona, Spain in January. Strong rides at the Tour of the Mediterranean and Liège-Bastogne-Liège landed him on the squad. Though Stetina is riding in support of GC leaders Zabriskie and Tom Danielson, the back-to-back national under-23 time trial champion (2008-2009) does hold hopes of riding his way into the jersey in the stage 7 time trial in Los Angeles.

“I want to show I’m strong, that I deserve my spot here,” he said. “I have no idea how I am compared to these guys right now. I haven’t raced since Liège.”

After three days, Stetina appears to be on good form, finishing in the first chase with Sagan in Santa Cruz. Assuming he can get to the penultimate stage time trial in Los Angeles, Stetina, who Vaughters has groomed to excel in the long tours for seven years, will look to make a statement.

“I’m going to go for it in the time trial,” he said.