Etixx - Quick-Step rider Julian Alaphilippe had the ride of his career so far on Saturday, winning solo on Mt. Baldy at the end of 128.7km Amgen Tour of California Stage 7 and taking the race lead by 2" over Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo). Sergio Henao (Team Sky) was 2nd, and Ian Boswell (Team Sky) was 3rd.
Team Sky did their best to shed riders from the peloton with each passing kilometer heading into the Mt. Baldy (6.92km, 9% average gradient) climb, setting a very high tempo in hopes of setting up Henao to go for the victory. At 13.7km to go the peloton was already down to about 25 riders. As the group headed around the first of 15 switchbacks of the steep climb, many riders immediately lost contact. By 5.9km to go just 12 riders remained in contention for the stage.
Henao was the first to accelerate in an elite group of several riders, including Alaphilippe, Sagan, Boswell, and Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale-Garmin). Only Alaphilippe could stick to his wheel. The duo then attacked each other continuously for several hundred meters. The winning move came with an acceleration of Alaphilippe with 4.1km to go. He gained a gap of 10" on Henao, and then added five more seconds to the gap going into the last couple kilometers. Boswell bridged to his teammate at about the final kilometer, but it was too late to catch Alaphilippe and he won solo by 23 seconds.
Alaphilippe also crossed 47" ahead of Sagan, which earned him the yellow jersey. The victory was just the 2nd of Alaphilippe's career, and the 27th on the road for Etixx - Quick-Step in 2015. Alaphilippe has been the revelation of the pro peloton in the past few weeks, having placed 2nd in both Flèche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, as well as placing 3rd in Amgen Tour of California Stage 3 and the 10.62km Stage 6 ITT on Friday.
Alaphilippe, who was wearing the white jersey for best young rider, will defend his leadership in the final, 105.2km Stage 8 from L.A. Live to Pasadena/Rose Bowl on Sunday. The stage features a 7-lap finishing circuit. Mark Cavendish goes into tomorrow's stage still in the green jersey as leader of the points classification.
"I am super happy with this win," Alaphilippe said. "Today was a short stage and we were going full gas since the beginning. In the final I was there with the best guys. Henao was attacking, stopping, attacking, stopping. He was relentless.
"At a certain moment at about 4 kilometers to go I decided to try to attack, and see if I could improve my classification. I went, and Henao didn't respond immediately. When I saw he didn't follow me I thought he was playing with me, and that he would arrive at any second and pass me. But I kept going and going anyway.
"The last two kilometers were the hardest of my life. I gave everything to go the distance, my legs felt like they were exploding. In my mind I was always thinking that Henao could come back. But I was doing my best to stay away. It wasn't until the final 200 meters when I finally understood I had won the stage. I enjoyed the moment, but I kept going 100 percent until the finish line.
"It was a great emotion for me because this is the second victory of my career. But, what makes me so happy is the way I won. I won a mountain stage in the Tour of California, the first stage race of eight days in my professional career. For me that is really special.
"I worked for Mark Cavendish on the flat stages and took my chances here when possible. I really rode with good legs this week after the Ardennes Classics. To have this performance with such momentum going into it is really great.
"Now I am in the leader's jersey. Of course tomorrow won't be easy to defend my position. There are intermediate time bonuses, and time bonuses at the finish line of the stage. It is clear Sagan is faster than me, so we will see tomorrow what will happen. I don't want to put pressure on myself for the GC.
"For the stage of tomorrow, I think we have to go with our original plan to try and win with Mark. He's won three stages already and is going really well. Then we will see if we can defend the yellow jersey. If not, it won't be the end of the world.
"We won four stages here so far out of seven. I had the best young rider jersey going into this stage, and Mark has the points jersey. So, we've already done plenty here and we are simply trying to add to what we've already accomplished. The 2015 Amgen Tour of California will be a race I never forget."
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