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For the second year in a row, Alaphilippe rode to a solo win in the Tour of California queen stage, sprinting past Stetina inside the final kilometre of the steep climb up Gibraltar Road; the Frenchman also took the overall lead

Photo: Sirotti

GEORGE BENNETT

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JULIAN ALAPHILIPPE

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PETER STETINA

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QUICK-STEP - ALPHA VINYL

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TOUR OF CALIFORNIA

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18.05.2016 @ 01:09 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep) continued his love affair with the Tour of California as he continued his string of queen stage wins by riding to a dominant solo victory on the climb up Gibraltar Road. With two hugely impressive accelerations, the Frenchman first dropped his fellow favourites and then distanced lone leader Peter Stetina (Trek) before sprinting up the steep slopes to take both the win and the leader’s jersey. Stetina and George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) rounded out the podium.

 

One year ago Julian Alaphilippe arrived at the Tour of California on the back of an impressive classics campaign that had seen him finish second in both Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Known as a puncheur and not a climber, he surprised most by winning the queen stage on Mount Baldy but missed out on the overall victory by the tiniest of margins after Peter Sagan had picked up enough bonus seconds in the final stage to ride him out of yellow on the final sprint stage.

 

This year Alaphilippe is back in California but after a less successful classics season that only allowed him to repeat last year’s second place in Fleche Wallonne, and a bout of mononucleosis during the off-season, he was less confident in his chances. With the race including both a long time trial and an even harder mountaintop finish on Gibraltar Road, the Frenchman claimed that he was not even going for GC.

 

However, those words seem to have been an attempt to play down expectations as he delivered an even more impressive performance in the 2016 queen stage than he did 12 months earlier. Almost sprinting up the steep climb of Gibraltar Road, he repeated last year’s victory in today’s third stage of the race, comfortably riding himself into the queen stage in the process.

 

Alaphilippe easily responded to the first attacks from Laurens Ten Dam (Giant-Alpecin) and George Bennett before he made his first impressive acceleration to sprint away from the Kiwi and bridge the gap to lone leader Peter Stetina. After a few moments to recover, he kicked again and the American could not even try to follow the strong Frenchman who created big time gaps in the final kilometre.

 

After yesterday’s hilly stage, it was time for the queen stage which brought the riders over 167.5km from Thousand Oaks to the top of the climb of Gibraltar Road. After a lumpy start with a category 3 and a category 2 climb, the terrain was mostly flat with just a single category 3 climb 46.5km from the finish. However, the stage had a very nasty sting in its tail as it ended with the 12km climb up Gibraltar Road, an ascent that averaged 8% and was set to offer the climbers their best chance to make a difference.

 

It was another sunny day in California when the riders gathered for the start and all riders that reached the finish yesterday were present as they rolled through the neutral zone. With a lumpy start, the first kilometres were a great invitation to aggressive racing and it was Andrew Tennant (WIGGINS) who managed to open a small advantage as they approached the first climb.

 

Tennant was quickly joined by another four riders and when another two riders had made the junction, seven riders had gathered in the front. Tennant, Evan Huffman (Rally), Krists Neilands (Axeon), Greg Daniel (Axeon), Oscar Clark (Holowesko), Tanner Putt (Unitedhealthcare) and Julian Arredondo (Trek) quickly got an advantage of 1.25 before Huffman extended his lead in the KOM classification by beating Clark and Dnaiel in the first sprint.

 

In the peloton, Cannondale took control but they were not chasing as they hit the second climb. Here Huffman and Clark attacked in the battle for the KOM points and this time it was the latter who came out on top while Daniel again rolled across the line in third.

 

After the climb, the septet got back together and they had now pushed their advantage out to 3.45. However, Cannondale were unwilling to let them get much of advantage and so they slowly redyced ut ti 3.15.

 

Tinkoff and BMC briefly tried to split things in a windy section, with Peter Sagan contributing to the work, but things again calmed down. Hence, the gap was still 3.10 when Tennant beat Putt and Clark in the first intermediate sprint.

 

As the peloton went through the feed zone, Patrick Bevin (Cannondale) hit the deck but he managed to rejoin the bunch while his teammates kept the gap between 3.30 and 4.00. In fact, he was contributing to the work alongside Alan Marangoni and Toms Skujins.

 

With 65km to go, the gap was still 3.50 and it had been reduced to 3.20 when they hit the small category 3 climb at the entrance to the final 50km. At the top, Huffman and Clark again sprinted for the points and it was the Rally rider who won the battle, with Putt rolling across the line in third. Marangoni led the peloton over the line 2.48 later.

 

Putt, Huffman and Clark briefly continued their attack but the group soon came back together. Meanwhile, the fight for position started in the peloton as BMC, Rally, Katusha and Driect Energie moved to the front end of the peloton.

 

Entering the final 35km, the gap was down to 2.25 as Marangoni, Skujins and Bevin were still working solidly in the peloton. Further up the road, Tennant won the final intermediate sprint uncontested, with Daniel and Putt rolling across the line in second and third respectively.

 

Putt clearly felt that he was one of the strongest riders in the break and so he launched an attack immediately after the sprint. However, he had no luck and so the septet again started to cooperate.

 

With 25km to go, the gap had dropped to 2 minutes and this prompted Putt to ride hard on a small climb. Only Daniel, Neilands and Arredondo could match his speed and even though Tennant briefly rejoined the group, it was evident that the four strongest riders had been found.

 

Putt did a lot of damage on the climbs and was quick to responds when Daniel attacked just before the passage of the 20km to go mark. Neilands and Arredondo briefly tried to make it back but they quickly sat up.

 

The peloton entered the final 20km with a delay of 1.30 but were now riding very fast as several teams were lining up their trains next to the Cannondale riders. Sky, Direct Energie, Trek, BMC and Giant-Alpecin were all on the front when Clark, Tennant and Huffman became the first escapees to be caught.

 

Unfortunately, the hectic fight for position took out two of the big names as Peter Kennaugh (Sky) who was the Sky captain, and Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie) hit the deck hard. While the latter was okay, the British rider was forced to leave the race.

 

The peloton didn’t wait and it was Markel Irizar (Trek) who hit the front before Dimension Data took over. While the teams continued their fight for position, riders started to drop off from behind, with Bradley Wiggins (WIGGINS) and defending champion Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) being among the first riders to sit up.

 

Jempy Drucker, Taylor Phinney (BMC), Nathan Haas, Bernhard Eisel (Dimension Data), Markel Irizar and Jasper Stuyven (Trek) were all visible on the front of the peloton which brought Arredondo and Neilands back as they entered the final 15km. Haas took over the pace-setting, reducing the gap to 1.00 as they hit the climb.

 

Michael Schär immediately went to work for BMC and created the first selection while also reducing the gap to 40 seconds. That was the signal for Daniel to surge clear and he easily distanced Putt with 11.5km to go.

 

Ben King (Cannondale) felt the effects of yesterday’s big effort and so he was dropped by the peloton just as Putt was brought back by Greg Van Avermaet who had taken over the pace-setting for BMC. Danilo Wyss was next in line for the American team and he ended the day for Daniel just before they entered the final 10km.

 

Wyss was riding so fast that he escaped with Neilson Powless (Axeon). When the Swiss realized the damage he had done, he waited for the peloton but Powless decided to continue.

 

While the young American increased his advantage, Phil Gaimon (Cannondale) took over the pace-setting in the 20-rider peloton but he was unable to keep up with Powless. With 8km, the Axeon rider had built an advantage of 15 seconds over the peloton.

 

With 6km to go, Gaimon swung off and left it to Andrew Talansky to set the pace for Cannondale captain Lawson Craddock. At this point, the strong Powless had doubled his advantage and was still riding strongly.

 

Talansky kept setting the pace until only 4.5km remained when the attacking from the favourites started. Tour of the Gila winner Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly) was the first to accelerate and he was joined by Peter Stetina (Trek) to form a strong duo.

 

Talansky didn’t leave the front and just upped the pace, splitting the 15-rider group in two. He kept Stetina and Morton under control while the two Americans joined Powless as they entered the final 4km.

 

Morton and Stetina were working well together to open a 10-second advantage while Powless was strong enough to stay with his companions. Meanwhile, Talansky had whittled the main group down to just 8 riders: Talansky, Lawson Craddock (Cannondale), Rohan Dennis, Samuel Sanchez, Brent Bookwalter (BMC), Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep), Laurens Ten Dam (Giant-Alpecin) and George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo).

 

Powless started to work with his two rivals and paid the price for the effort when Stetina accelerated with 2.5km to go. The Trek rider immediately rode away from his companions and was riding strongly towards a solo win.

 

In the peloton, Talansky swung off and it was Sanchez who took over the pace-setting with a small acceleration. As the Spaniard slowed down, Craddock moved to the front, trying to ride his rivals off the wheel.

 

Ten Dam was the next to move and only Bennett and Alaphilippe could match the strong Dutchman. Bennett made an immediate counterattack and this time only Alaphilippe could follow.

 

Morton dropped Powless who was passed by Bennett and Alaphilippe while Stetina dug deep, passing the flamme rouge with a 10-second advantage over Morton. Alaphilippe and Bennett were just a few metres further back.

 

Just as the pair had caught Morton, Alaphilippe made a fantastic acceleration and sprinted away from everyone. In a matter of just a few seconds, he bridged the gap to Stetina.

 

Alaphilippe took a short moment to recover before he went again. With another very powerful acceleration, he easily distanced his American rival and then sprinted all the way to the line to claim his first win of the 2016 season.

 

Stetina reached the finish 15 seconds later while Bennett was another 10 seconds off the pace in third. Bookwalter finished strongly to take fourth followed by Powless. Crossing the line in 8th with a time loss of 48 seconds, TT specialist Dennis remained within striking distance of the overall win.

 

With the victory, Alaphilippe moves into the race lead with a 19-second advantage over Stetina, with the top 10 closely mirroring today’s stage result. He faces a tough first day in the yellow jersey as stage four has a difficult finale. The mostly flat stage along the famous Highway 1 only includes three smaller category 3 climbs until the riders get to the tough finale. Here they will tackle a category 2 (5.5km, 5.7%) and a category 3 climb (1.1km, 10.3%) in quick succession and the final challenges comes just 2.5km from the finish, meaning that it’s a stage for puncheurs and classics specialists.

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