The new contenders
While it was a surprise to see Horner slip on the GC, it was almost equally surprising to see two men emerge Thursday as contenders.
Gesink’s time trial, good enough for fourth overall, was brilliant. The Rabobank rider, coming off a broken femur last fall, is a marvel in the mountains and his team will be fresh — it’s been a quiet race for the Dutch squad thus far, with some late work for sprinter Michael Matthews and a pair of attacks from Bram Tankink and Wilco Kelderman on Wednesday. It could soon be very loud.
“It’s a good sign; so far so good,” Gesink said after the time trial. “I’m feeling good, so we’ll see how it goes the next few days… I’ll sit a bit and relax and see how it will be [Friday]. I don’t think tomorrow will be the big day. I think Baldy will be the big day.”
Gesink, as van Garderen said Thursday, will be “hard to control” on Baldy. He’s just 39 seconds out of yellow and five seconds in arrears of van Garderen.
Velits’ time trial and solid form should allow him to emerge from Levi Leipheimer’s very tall shadow in California, and contend for the overall. Only in California could a grand tour runner-up (Vuelta a España, 2010) find himself in the shadows for half of the race.
Velits sits at 49 seconds behind Zabriskie and he climbs much better than the American. His Omega Pharma team hasn’t had the race it hoped for, as Leipheimer has said he isn’t here to contend and Tom Boonen, the king of the spring classics, has been beaten by Sagan in sprint finishes.
Velits is unencumbered now, and Leipheimer recently said he’d work to help his teammate on Baldy. It was there in 2011 that Leipheimer rode away with Horner to win the stage and land his then-teammate atop the final podium.
“I don’t really want to think about [the overall],” Velits said Thursday. “I am simply trying my best and if and when I have the legs I will go for it.”
What a story it would be for the Slovaks if Velits were to finish off what countryman Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) began with his four back-to-back stage wins.
But then, a breakthrough win for a young American like Talansky or van Garderen, or a come-from-behind triumph for Horner would make for strong headlines as well.
Yes, the characters in the bike race changed on Thursday, but the narrative remains the same. It’s still Baldy or bust.