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Timing his sprint in the strong headwind perfectly, Sagan pipped Wippert and Groenewegen on the line in the bunch sprint on the first stage of the Tour of California; the Slovakian is the first leader

Photo: A.S.O.








16.05.2016 @ 01:15 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

One year after his surprise overall victory, Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) continued his love affair with the Tour of California by winning the bunch sprint on the first stage of the 2016 edition of the race. Timing his sprint in the strong headwind perfectly, the world champion managed to pass Wouter Wippert (Cannondale) and Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) just metres from the line to take both his 14th stage win in the American race and the first leader’s jersey.


Ever since he made his debut in 2010, Peter Sagan has been the dominant figure at the Tour of California. During his first six participations, the Slovakian gathered no less than 13 stage victories to become the most successful rider in the race and last year he even defied all expectations by taking the overall win on a course that included both a tough mountain stage and a time trial.


This year Sagan returns to the race as the defending champion but with a harder course than ever before, he has openly admitted that he is not going to defend his title. Instead, he has his sights set on stage wins and with several rolling stages that are suited to puncheurs or likely to be decided in reduced bunch sprints, the race seems to be a paradise for the world champion.


However, few would have expected Sagan to win the first stage which included a big climb but still was expected to suit the pure sprinters. However, as Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) was boxed in and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) faded in the headwind when he launched a long sprint, the Slovakian made use of perfect time to kick off his race in the best possible way by taking his 14th stage win.


The 11th edition of the Tour of California kicked off with a tough 175km stage around the city of San Diego. After a flat start, the riders headed into the mountains to go up the category 1 Honey Springs Road mountain (9.5km, 5%). However, the summit was located with 87km to go and after a rolling section, it was a long descent that led to the final 60km which were almost completely flat, meaning that a bunch sprint was the expected outcome.


The riders had great conditions when they rolled out of San Diego but that didn’t inspire the riders to ride aggressively. In fact, the break was established almost immediately as Daniel Patten (Wiggins), Daniel Eaton (Unitedhealthcare), Jacob Rathe (Jelly Belly), Joonas Henttala (Novo Nordisk) and Danny Pate (Rally) had already opened a 25-second advantage after just 4 minutes of racing.


Michael Sheehan (Jelly Belly) and Oscar Clark (Holowesko) managed to bridge the gap and make it a front septet before the peloton slowed down. At the 16km mark, the gap had already gone out to 2.35 and it was even six minutes when the escapees approached the first intermediate sprint.


Katusha hit the front to keep the gap under control and when Sheehan beat Eaton and Rathe in the sprint, they had made sure that the advantage was only 6.15. Giant-Alpecin also gathered their troops but they didn’t contribute to the chase.


After 50km of racing, the riders slowly started to climb, with Katusha having reduced the gap to 5.35. Vladimir Isaychev and Jhonatan Restrepo did the work and they got to the official start of the Honey Springs Road climb 4.45 behind the seven leaders.


Clark beat Rathe, Pate, Eaton and Henttala in the KOM sprint to ensure that he would wear the mountains jersey after the stage. Further back, Isaychev and Restrepo put Mark Cavendish in difficulty and the Dimension Data rider had to work hard to rejoin the bunch in the rolling section after the top.


With 83km to go, the gap was still 4.15 and Isaychev and Restrepo kept the gap between the 4- and 5.minute marks for a few kilometres before they hit the gas. Entering the final 70km, they had reduced it to 2.45 and it had dropped to 2.10 just seven kilometres later.


With Cavendish back in the peloton, Diemnsion Data gathered their troops behind Katusha that saw the gap go out to 2.30 as they hit the long descent inside the final 60km. Isaychev rode so fast in the downhill section that he even rode away from the peloton and he had to slow down to wait for his teammates.


Katusha were clearly dissatisfied not to get any help and so they slowed down, allowing the gap to almost go out to 3 minutes. After a bit of discussion, Dimension Data accepted to join the Russian team and it was Matthew Brammeier who started to trade pulls with Restrepo and Isaychev.


With the added firepower, the gap was again coming down steadily and it had been reduced to 1.55 as they entered the final 40km.


Brammeier, Restrepo and Isaychev were working well together to keep the break in check. However, the escapees still had something left and as they tried to catch the peloton by surprise, they managed to push the advantage out to 2.20.


The mission failed as the peloton reacted strongly to the acceleration and they had reduced the gap to 1.45 when Sheehan beat Henttala and Eaton in the final intermediate sprint with 35km to go. Hence, Clark used the opportunity to make an attack but as both Rathe and Patten responded immediately, the septet stayed together.


Even though the group started to cooperate again, the attacks had cost some time and only 1.05 was left of the advantage when they hit the final 30km. That prompted Rathe to attack on a small climb just 2km later and unlike the previous attempt from Clark, the move was strong enough for him to get clear.


Patten and Clark took off in pursuit and after a 3km pursuit, they managed to rejoin Rathe. The trio cooperated nicely and while Restrepo ended his work in the peloton, they managed to keep a stable 1-minute advantage with 23km to go. The rest of the break was caught.


Entering the final 20km, Katusha had to dig into their GC resources as Isaychev ended his work. Hence, Tiago Machado hit the front to work with Brammeier who was still chasing hard for Dimenion Data.


Luckily, Restrepo managed to get back on the front to work with Brammerier, meaning that Machado could save previous energy, while the two hard-working domestiques reduced the gap to just 40 seconds with 15km to go.


Patten, Clark and Rathe did an excellent job to maintain their advantage for the next 10km and this forced Machado to again lend a hand to the chase. His strong pulls meant that the gap quickly dropped to 20 seconds and this prompted Patten to try to get rid of his companions. His mission failed and instead he paid for the effort when Clark countered the move, bring only Rathe along to reduce the front group to a duo.


While Patten sat up, Daniel Teklehaimanot (Dimension Data) joined Machado on the front of the peloton as Brammeier had now swung off. Nonetheless, the gap was still 22 seconds with 5km to go.


This was the signal for Sky to kick into action and it was Alex Peters who hit the front for the British team. However, very soon the sprint teams all lined up their troops next to them on the wide road and it was now Peters, Nikolay Trusov (Tinkoff) and Michael Schär (BMC) riding next to each other


With 3.5km to go, it was over for the two escapees and a Holowesko rider had no luck when he tried to launch a counterattack. Just in that moment, LottoNL-Jumbolaunched their train and it was Dennis van Winden who led four of his teammates to the front.


Katusha tried to pass the Dutch team after Maarten Wyannts had taken over but the Dutch team mananed to keep them at bay. Hence, it was Mike Teunissen, Robert Wagner and Dylan Groenewegen who were on the front as they passed the flamme rouge.


The Dutch team were passed by both Tinkoff and Katusha and the two teams went head to head in a big battle. Michal Mørkøv was the first rider to surrender for Katusha and so it was Tinkoff on the front with 500m to go.


Michal Kolar did the lead-out for Sagan but the world champion was nowhere to be seen and so Katusha regained the front positions with Jacopo Guarnieri and Alexander Kristoff. The Norwegian launched his sprint but only moved backwards when riders came from behind.


Instead, it was Groenewegen who came flying after he had seemed to be boxed in and the Dutchman looked like he was going to win the stage. However, Wouter Wippert did a strong sprint and with 100m to go, it seemed to be a duel between the two Dutchmen.


Just as Wippert was passing his compatriot and could smell his first victory in California, Sagan suddenly came flying from far back and he just managed to pass the two Dutch sprinters metres from the line. Wippert had to settle for second while Groenewegen crossed the line in third.


With the victory, Sagan takes the overall lead with a four-second advantage over Wippert and he should have a solid chance to defend his jersey in stage 2 which is much harder than the opener. Right from the start, the riders will tackle a category 1 mountain and then there’s another category 2 climb to negotiate in the first half. A long descent leads to two consecutive category 2 climbs and even though the final 30km are predominantly flat, those two challenges are expected to rule out most of the sprinters, meaning that Sagan could very well be the fastest in a reduced bunch sprint.



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