Mark Cavendish won his second stage of the Amgen Tour of California (AToC) in as many days once again besting Tom Boonen. The Columbia-High Road sprinter won the race's longest stage at 134 miles, but all eyes were looking southward toward Solvang where the most decisive stage of the race, a 15-mile individual time trial, will most like decide the winner of the 4th edition of America's biggest and best race.
While two-time overall champion Levi Leipheimer goes for the three-peat, the big question is whether Team Astana boss Johan Bruyneel will let Lance Armstrong go all out in the time trial. There may seem to be an obvious answer to the question, but with two difficult days in the mountains looming, Lance may need to save his strength to be able to defend Levi's jersey.
That, of course, is assuming that Levi keeps the jersey. He has owned the Solvang TT since its inception and his fitness and drive seem to indicate that he will continue his domination. With Lance as the closest placed teammate in fourth, just 30 seconds back, it might make sense to play it safe and let Armstrong go full gas. If Levi flats, crashes or just has a bad day, having someone who can step in and take over the race leadership is a big plus. That's exactly the role Levi played for Alberto Contador in last year's Vuelta a Espana. Levi finished second overall, but if Contador had come to grief, Team Astana would still have won the race. After all, it is all about the team.
However, if Levi does ride to the level we can expect, Lance may be needed to help defend the jersey in the final two days. If you remember the 2007 Tour of California, Jen Voigt was in second place behind Levi going into the time trial. The German went all out and almost won the race. But, in 2008, Jens held back inthe time trial because his teammate, Fabian Cancellara, was in second place to Levi and if Cancellara beat Levi and took the jersey, Jens' strength would be needed to defend the jersey.
All this discussion may be moot because Team Astana is the strongest squad in the race and even if Lance does go full gas, rider like Yaroslav Popvych, Jani Brajkovic, Chechu Rubiera and Chris Horner are clearly capable of working at the front to keep the jersey on Levi's shoulders.
Personally, I would like to see Lance unleashed just to see what he can do and where his fitness is at this time of year. I think Levi is a tad bit stronger than Lance so I still see Leipheimer winning, but a one-two finish is not out of the question.
Also, I like both Mic Rogers and Dave Zabriskie, the riders in second and third place overall and hope that they both ride well. It might be a bit too early for Rogers to ride the type of time trial we expect from a three-time World Champion in this discipline, but you never know. Dave Z is supremely motivated to do well, I hope he can pull out a good ride and keep his spot on the podium.
Sort of race notes:
Here are photos of some of the spectators along the course:
I hope I am not jinxing the race by welcoming the sun back to the great(well, kind of great, these days) state of California especially when I tell you that temperatures in the 70's might greet the riders in Solvang for the decisive time trial(TT). Just to be sure there was lots of snow lining the roads today in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, but the roads were dry and the temps were moderate.
All this adds up to a bluebird day for the AToC and the racers did not disappoint. Current US Pro Road champion, Tyler Hamilton(Rock Racing), Jason McCartney(SaxoBank) and Serge Pauwels(Cervelo Test Team) formed the break of the day and almost held it into Clovis. But, the sprinters and their teams timed the chase to perfection setting up for only the second bunch finish of the race. Unlike yesterday when the smart money was on sprint phenom Mark Cavendish (Columbia-High Road) and Thor Hushovd(Cervelo Test Team) stole the show, the Cav won by about two inches over another sprinter extraordinaire, Tom Boonen(Quick Step). The margin would most likely have been bigger if Cav hadn't started celebrating before he crossed the line, but that doesn't really matter. A win is a win.
So why did Cavendish seal the deal today, but come up empty-handed yesterday? The answer is in two parts. First off, the sprinter has to feel good enough to want to contest the sprint. In my interview with Tom Boonen yesterday, Tom was pretty adamant that he wasn't going to be going for it on wet roads and risk a crash that might end to his 2009 spring Classics season. That ruled out Tom yesterday, but Cavendish doesn't ride the spring classics to win. He is more a a pure sprinter and while he might try for a win in the flatter races such as Milan-San Remo, he won't be targeting monuments to cycling such as Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. So, that means that Cavendish will be going for sprint wins, even on wetter stages, as long as he feels good.
The second major part is the team's leadout train. These days, to win a big bunch sprint in a big race you either need to be significantly faster than everyone else or have a good group of guys who can set you up for the sprint. A leadout train basically revs up the pace to keep the speed high enough to prevent anyone from breaking away. Then, each rider pulls off at a pre-determined point orchestrated in such a way that their top sprinter hits the front with 150-200 meters to the finish line. The sprinter sits in the draft of his teammates until the very last minute then boom, off go the champagne corks.
Yesterday, in the sprint in Modesto, it appeared that Mark Cavendish was willing to give it a go, but in the final mile of the race, his leadout train got severely derailed. The final three riders in the train were George Hincapie, Mark Renshaw and Mark Cavendish ordered that way because Renshaw is faster than Hincapie and Cavendish is faster than Renshaw. The problem was that Renshaw couldn't hold Hincapie's wheel. It was probably not due to speed, more than likely there was too much 'barging'(pushing and shoving) and Renshaw just got pushed off of George's wheel.
Today, in Clovis, the sun clearly improved the spirits of all the riders, including the sprinters so Cav and Boonen were ready to contest the finish. And, unlike yesterday, the Columbia-High Road leadout train did not get derailed. On the flip side, Boonen's Quick-Step leadout train look disorganized. Advantage Cavendish.
Jason McCartney spent a long time off the front in both Stage 2 and today's stage, but has yet to grab the brass ring. I talked with him briefly after his long escape on the way to Santa Cruz. He was initially dropped by Quick Step's Carlos Barredo on the final climb, but he clawed his way back into the lead halfway up the climb. I asked him if he had a stage win in his sights, "Yeah, for certain, but I just kind of locked up at the end. It was cold out there and I just needed a little more freshness." Here is a photo of a very tired and cold McCartney embracing his family at the finish line.
I thought I would throw in this photo from yesterday of the riders heading out on the course from San Jose. Hopefully, this will be one of my last rain photos.
Tyler Hamilton won Amgen's Breakaway from Cancer Most Courageous Rider Jersey for his efforts in the breakaway today.
Not So Race Notes
Tomorrow, the race route will take the racers right past the location where legendary actor James Dean died in a tragic car accident in 1955. At about mile 98 they will pass the intersection of State Highway 46 and State Highway 41 where the accident occurred. Coincidentally, Dean was headed to Paso Robles, the site of the stage finish when he died. There is a memorial to Dean at the small diner at the intersection.