For a brief moment this past Saturday, I thought that I was watching Le Tour de France.
The race unfolding on my TV screen featured a forested mountainside with a steep gradient, top international teams with well-known riders, and an unpredictable finish that kept me on the edge of my seat until the very end. In the final five kilometers, the peloton splintered apart, racers pushed their bodies to the absolute limit, and the overall standings reshuffled with a new man on top.
I wasn't watching the Tour or even the Giro d'Italia. I was watching the penultimate stage of the 7th Amgen Tour of California.
Epic bike racing had finally come to America!
Whether you're a diehard cycling fan or just someone who likes to tune in during the challenging mountain stages of Le Tour de France, Stage Seven of the Tour of California featured the well-executed tactics, calculated attacks, and extraordinary physical efforts every TV viewer craves. There were plenty of fan favorites and more than a few underdogs to cheer for as the peloton climbed the steep slopes of California's Mount Baldy.
The 2011 defending champion, Radio Shack-Nissan's Chris Horner, set out on his last chance to make up a two-minute and fifty-second deficit to the race leader, fellow American Dave Zabriskie. Zabriskie had clawed his way into first place with an outstanding individual time trial two days earlier, besting a list of top-tier International racers, many of whom are viewed as contenders in this year's TDF. Zabriskie had been runner-up twice prior and his only goal for Stage 7 was not to give up one second of his time advantage to Tejay Van Garderen (:34 back), Robert Gesink (:39), Peter Velits (:45), or Andrew Talansky (:48).
As Horner set out on his breakaway with three teammates, fans of the Lance Armstrong era were treated to a familiar plot line; the determined American going for broke on the toughest of all mountain stages.
With a gap of nearly four minutes over the chasing peloton and only one rider, Colombia-Coldeportes' Darwin (Jhon) Atapuma holding on, commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen waxed nostalgic about plucky Americans past. Their enthusiasm for Horner's chances for a come-from-behind victory quickly dampened as the peloton steadily chipped away at his time advantage, leaving a stage victory as his only (yet unlikely) opportunity for glory at this year's race.
With Horner's hopes dashed and the peloton closing in, Atapuma broke away and led the race right up to the final kilometer banner. Dutch rider Robert Gesink had led an attack to leave behind his two main rivals, Zabriskie and Van Garderen, and bridge the gap to the Colombian racer. Gesink had to overcome a thirty-nine second deficit to Zabriskie while remaining at least five seconds ahead of Van Garderen. In the final five kilometers, this was any man's race for the top five riders who were separated in the standings by less than one minute. Another eleven riders were within striking distance at two minutes back.
While Atapuma soldiered up the final ascent to Mount Baldy's mountaintop finish, the real race - the determination of the eventual overall winner - was taking place on the slopes behind him. Gesink's attack encouraged Zabriskie's teammate and top ten contender, Tom Danielson, to reel him back in, but the Dutch rider was just too determined. Danielson still managed to finish 5th - ahead of both Zabriskie and Van Garderen. Meanwhile, Atapuma's teammate, Fabio Duarte, quietly bested them all in their pursuit of Gesink.
Gesink's wake ultimately determined the final GC standings for ATOC, but he still wasn't content. In the final meters of that last kilometer, he fought hard to beat Atapuma across the finish line. Atapuma took a close second, earning the Most Aggressive Rider award. Duarte finished third, leaving race favorites Danielson, Horner, Leipheimer, Zabriskie, and Van Garderen behind and securing an overall 5th place finish in his first North American race.
As is the case with most stage races, the penultimate or "queen's" stage is the last opportunity to alter the overall race standings. The course for the final stage is generally shorter and less challenging, serving as a mere certification of the prior day's results. Barring a major crash, no rider has an opportunity to break away from the peloton and improve his overall time standings. The 2012 Tour of California was decided in the final five kilometers of Mount Baldy.
The victor on Mount Baldy was one of several "comeback kids" in this year's race. Gesink lost his father to a mountain bike accident last year and broke a leg in training last September. He had only been back on the bike since January.
Past ATOC winner Levi Leipheimer was also just returning to racing after he suffered a broken fibula in April. At 38, he and Chris Horner, 40, remain the senior statesman of American cycling. Both had won in the past (Leipheimer 3 times, Horner once last year) and a victory for either would have been a great source of American pride.
Zabriskie and Van Garderen represented a greater likelihood for US victory, but neither could match the climbing prowess and sheer determination of the Dutch rider. Zabriskie would remain the bridesmaid for a third time while Van Garderen would be bumped off the podium by American Tom Danielson.
I had nearly given up hope on seeing a TDF-worthy showdown during the prior six stages of the Tour of California. While there was plenty of climbing throughout the course, the in-town finishes after the climbs allowed the peloton to reform, setting five of those six stages up for sprint finishes. One man, the young Slovakian Peter Sagan, won four of those five sprints, adding a fifth victory in Stage 8. As impressive as five out of eight stage victories may seem, he finished 42nd place overall, 27:28 behind the race winner.
For fans of epic battles and heroic efforts, there is nothing like Grand Tour road racing. It's frustrating that one of the greatest stage races - the Giro d'Italia - is happening now and my cable company no longer carries NBC Universal to provide my daily fill.
I can't wait until July to watch Le Tour de France. In the meantime, I guess I'll have to head out and create an epic ride of my own...
If you like this post, share it on Google+, Facebook, or Twitter by clicking the boxes below the article title.
Keep riding and be safe!