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Using his puncheur qualities, Sagan stayed with the GC riders on the short, steep climb in the finale of stage 4 of the Tour of California before beating Van Avermaet and Haas in a small group sprint; Alaphilippe retained the lead

Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images












19.05.2016 @ 00:36 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) confirmed that he can overcome pretty hard climbs when he continued his impressive run of success at the Tour of California by claiming his second stage win on the hard fourth stage of the race. Having survived the steep 10% climb in the finale, he did well to control the late attacks before holding off Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Nathan Haas (Dimension Data) in a sprint from a small group that was mostly made up of GC riders. Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep) showed signs of weakness but rejoined the group inside the final kilometre and so retained the overall lead.


For the 2016 edition of the Tour of California, the organizers have designed the hardest course ever and the race leaves very few opportunities for the pure sprinters. With several stages suited to puncheurs and strong sprinters, the course is tailor-made for Peter Sagan who is already the most successful rider in the history of the race.


The inclusion of yesterday’s big mountaintop finish on Gibraltar Road always meant that it would be impossible for Sagan to defend last year’s overall victory but the nature of the course means that he could very well win more than half of the stages. He even got it off to a surprisingly good start as he came out on top in stage 1 which was expected to suit the pure sprinters.


A failed chase meant that he missed out in stage 2 which was one of the lumpy stages suited to his characteristics but today he bounced back with an excellent ride in stage 4 whose tough finale made it a perfect day for punchy classics riders. Sagan fit the bill and he did an excellent work to stay with all the GC riders on the short wall in the finale before he beat fellow puncheurs Greg Van Avermaet and Nathan Haas in a sprint to claim a record 15th win in the race.


After yesterday’s queen stage, the riders faced another very difficult finale on the long stage 4 which brought the riders over a massive 217km from Morro Bay to Monterey County. They spent almost the entire day on the lumpy Highroad 1 that included three category 3 climbs along the way. However, the stage had a nasty sting in its tail as the riders first tackled a category 2 climb (5.5km, 5.7%) before they hit the short, steep category 3 climb that averaged 10.3% over 1.1km. The top came just 2.5km from the finish and from there it was rolling terrain all the way to the line.


All 143 riders who reached the finish yesterday, were present when the peloton gathered under a beautiful sunny sky. As they headed through the neutral zone, Gianni Moscon (Sky) suffered a puncture but he was back in the field by the time, the flag was dropped to signal the official start.


The stage was an obvious opportunity to ride aggressively and it was Rally and Unitedhealthcare that were particularly active in the first part. After a little more than 15km of racing, three riders got clear but they were soon brought back.


Dimension Data tried to get clear while a crash with a Jelly Belly rider briefly split the field. However, no one had gone clear when they got to the first intermediate sprint where Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep) extended his lead by beating Jempy Drucker (BMC) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff).


The attacking continued but the fast pace meant that it was impossible for anyone to get clear in the first hour. A strong 20-rider group briefly managed to get an advantage of 15 seconds but at the 60km mark, it was again all back together.


Moments later, the right break was finally formed when Greg Daniel (Axeon), Timo Roosen (LottoNL-Jumbo), Michael Mørkøv (Katusha), Tanner Putt (Unitedheathcare), Ryan Anderson (Direct Energie), Will Routley (Rally) and Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) escaped. With 150km to go, they had built an advantage of one minute. As they hit the first climb, it had gone out to 3.20 which allowed the riders to sprint for the points, with Routley winning the battle as he held off Anderson and Roosen.


Routley was again the fastest in the second KOM sprint where he held off Anderson and Putt while the peloton reached the top 4.50 later. The gap even went out to 5.10 before Tinkoff took control in the peloton. However, there was no big stress and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) could easily rejoin the peloton after a mechanical.


Entering the final 100km, Tinkoff had brought the gap down to 3.45 and now they were getting assistance from the Etixx-QuickStep team. They comined forces to bring the gap down to 3 minutes when Routley won the third KOM sprint ahead of Anderson and Putt.


The gap as down to 2.40 with 55km to go when Etixx-QuickStep stopped their work and as Tinkoff refused to do it all alone, the group almost came to a standstill, with Nikolay Trusov riding slowly on the front. Hence, the gap went out to 4.20 in just 50km and it even reached five minutes before Tinkoff lost the poker game and again started to chase.


The team gathered Trusov, Adam Blythe, Erik Baska and Michal Kolar on the front and the quartet went full gas as the small lull suddenly meant that the situation was tricky. With 40km to go, they had shaved 30 seconds off the lead and now Etixx-QuickStep again came to the fore too, asking Nikolas Maes to contribute to the pace-setting.


Cavendish led Daniel and Routley across the line in the final intermediate sprint as the escapees were still working well together but now they were losing  ground quickly When Trusov swung off with 35km to go, they were only 3.25 ahead and it had dropped to 3 minutes when they entered the final 30km.


The escapees turned away from Highway 1 with an advantage of 2.35. Moments later, Baska also swung off, leaving it to Maes, Blythe, Kolar and Oscar Gatto to set the pace as they entered the final 20km, still 2 minutes behind the escapees. At this point, the terrain was getting hillier and riders were starting to get into trouble at the back of the field.


On the first of the small climbs, Gatto swung off but Tinkoff got some welcome assistance from Tom Boonen who joined forces with his teammate Maes on the front. When Kolar also cracked, it was only Maes, Boonen and Blythe riding on the front.


With 15km to go, Blythe became the final Tinkoff rider to surrender and so it was all left to Etixx-QuickStep who asked Maximilano Richeze to join forces with Boonen and Maes. Meanwhile, the break hit the first of the two late climbs with an advantage of 1.40 and Cavendish was struggling right from the lower slopes.


Disaster struck for Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly) as he crashed with his teammates Ben Wolfe and Angus Morton. He managed to get back on his bike but he faced a hard chase to rejoin the peloton. The entire team waited for him but as the peloton exploded on the lower slopes of the climb, the team cars were held back, meaning that it was much harder to regain contact.


BMC hit the front of the peloton with Danilo Wyss and created the first huge selection in the peloton but they didn’t respond when Daniel Jaramillo (Unitedhealthcare) launched the first attack. Further up the road, the attacking also started in the break when Anderson launched a strong acceleration that spelled the end for Cavendish and Putt, reducing the group to just five riders.


BMC stopped their effort and that forced Tinkoff back to work with Michael Gogl. Cannondale realized that the Russian team was running out of gas and so they launched an attack with Lawson Craddock who quickly bridged the gap to Jaramillo. Putt had waited for his teammate and started to ride tempo on the front but the strong group was brought back when Samuel Sanchez (BMC) tried to bridge across, dragging the rest of the field along.


In the break, Daniel went full gas and he split the group to pieces and the riders were soon riding one by one. Anderson was the nearest chaser behind the young American, with Mørkøv riding in third position.


George Bennett was the next to attack, bridging across to LottoNL-Jumbo teammate Roosen but that was too dangerous for BMC. Rohan Dennis hit the front and started to chase hard, bringing everybody but the LottoNL-Jumbo pair and Daniel back in the process.


Bennett dropped Roosen but the effort was in vain as Dennis also brought the Kiwi back. Meanwhile, Daniel continued his effort and still maintained a 35-second advantage.


The 20-rider peloton almost came to a standstill and this allowed Andre Talansky (Cannondale) to maje a move. Sanchez and Gianni Moscon (Sky) joined him and the trio got a small advantage.


The peloton gave chase and just as the catch was made, Moscon went again. This time the Italian got a bigger advantage but he was back in the fold before they got to the top.


Daniel reached the top with a 15-second advantage over Daniel Teklehaimanot (Dimension Data) who made an attack just before the top. While he increased his advantage, Moscon kept riding aggressively in the peloton.


Alexey Vermeulen (LottoNL-Jumbo) bridged the gap to Teklehaimanot as they approached the bottom of the descent where the group briefly came to a standstill. However, the American refused to cooperate and as Wyss started to chase hard in the peloton, the chase duo was brought back just as they hit the final climb.


Daniel dug deep as hit the steep slopes with a 10-second advantage but it was melting away as Wyss wnet full gas. Brent Bookwalter took over for BMC and this spelled the end for the young American.


Jacques van Rensburg (Dimension Data) tried to attack but his effort only served to split the field. Bennett’s move also failed but Ruben Guerreiro (Axeon) had more luck. As Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) refused to work, the group briefly game to a standstill and so the Axeon rider could increase his advantage.


BMC again hit the front with Dennis and he kept the young Portuguese under control, cresting the summit less than five seconds behind the leader. When he swung off, Bennett wen tfull gas but his acceleration only served to bring Guerreiro back.


Nathan Haas (Dimension Data) launched a strong attack and he got a solid advantage on the final small climb. It took some time for BMC to regroup and it was Sanchez who slowly reeled the Australian in with 1.5km to go.


Peter Stetina (Trek) launched an immediate counterattack and he got company for Tao Geoghegan-Hart (Axeon) as they got to the top of the final climb. However, Sagan shut it down under the flamme rouge and it was a small 10-rider group that had gathered, with Alaphilippe having lost contact.


Sagan led the group down the descent but as he again hit the flat road, he slowed down. This allowed the Alaphilippe group to regain contact before Haas launched a long sprint.


Sagan immediately caught the Australian’s wheel and then waited patiently for Greg Van Avermaet to launch his sprint. The pair went head to head and this time it was the Slovakian who had the upper hand, with Haas having to settle for third.


Alaphilippe saved the day and so retained his 19-second advantage over Stetina. He faces another long and difficult stage tomorrow when the riders climb to more than 2000m of altitude. After a flat start at sea level, the riders will face a long gradual uphill section for most of the stage, culminating with two category 2 climbs in quick succession. The final 50km are mainly flat but the stage ends at the top of a 1.7km climb that averages 5.9%, making it another perfect opportunity for the puncheurs.



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