Winning big in California gives a transformed Michael Rogers confidence for the Tour
The situation looked desperate for Michael Rogers. Stage 2 of the Amgen Tour of California was at a critical juncture when he felt his front tire go flat. There was no sign of his HTC-Columbia team car, nor the SRAM neutral service vehicle, and his biggest rivals were racing away from him through a downpour toward the day’s last climb, the back-breaking Trinity Grade.
All the race vehicles were stuck behind multiple groups of dropped riders, spread over several minutes, after the RadioShack team of defending champion Levi Leipheimer blew the race apart on Oakville Grade, a short, steep climb past the misty vineyards of Napa Valley. Only a score of men managed to stick with the red-and-grey-suited Shack riders on the steep, narrow, rain-slick descent.
Luckily, one of them was HTC’s American rookie Tejay van Garderen, who saw his team leader in distress, screeched to a halt and gave him his front wheel. The genial Rogers, who had come to California to challenge Leipheimer for the overall title, still had a hard chase ahead of him, and he desperately cut corners on the serpentine back road, swishing through puddles below a dripping canopy of live oaks.
Rogers caught the leaders on the climb and finished with them 35km later in Santa Rosa. Meanwhile, good Samaritan van Garderen waited and waited before getting a spare wheel and he’d ride into the finish more than 17 minutes back. As Rogers commented later: “Thanks to Tejay for giving me his front wheel … otherwise it was race over for me.”
Thankfully, it was race on. And next up was the hilly stage down the Pacific coast to Santa Cruz, taking in four categorized climbs through the redwoods, including Bonny Doon, where Leipheimer planned to repeat his coup of 2009. The set-up was similar, with the American’s domestique Yaroslav Popovych surging at the foot of the 11km-long climb as he did last year. When the Ukrainian eased off, teammate Chris Horner took over, later saying he hit 650 watts; only his team leaders Leipheimer and Lance Armstrong stayed on Horner’s wheel, along with three rivals, Rogers, Garmin-Transitions’ Dave Zabriskie and UnitedHealthcare’s Rory Sutherland.
And when Horner and Armstrong slowed, Leipheimer made the attack everyone was expecting. For a moment, it looked as though the RadioShack rider would pull clear, but Rogers was quick to cross the gap, while Zabriskie needed a few seconds longer to close. The other three slipped back to a chase group.
When the lead trio crossed the 2,135-foot summit a minute ahead of the chasers, it looked as though the margin would continue to increase over the remaining 19km. But Liquigas-Doimo riders Brian Vandborg and Francesco Bellotti pulled hard on the long downhill to the ocean, confident in their rookie teammate Peter Sagan, who’d placed second in Santa Rosa to Cervélo TestTeam’s Brett Lancaster the previous day and was coming off a sprint stage win at Switzerland’s Tour de Romandie.
The chasers got close, cutting the lead to 17 seconds, but they left the time bonuses of 10, six and four seconds in play for the three men up front. With Leipheimer, Rogers and Zabriskie so evenly matched, and all of them sure to do well in the stage 7 time trial in Los Angeles, those time bonuses took on greater significance. None of them wins sprints, and it took a couple of solo accelerations by Zabriskie to earn him the victory — even though he raised his arm in celebration a little too soon and was almost passed by a lunging Rogers.
The stage-win bonus put Zabriskie into the golden jersey, which his Garmin team easily defended on stage 4 to Modesto, where HTC-Columbia was focused on getting a second stage win for Cavendish after his stage 1 success in Sacramento — but the Brit went too early for once and Italian sprinter Francesco Chicchi shot by to take the win for Liquigas.
The climbs in the Sierra Nevada foothills on the fifth day’s agenda didn’t favor Cavendish (who would finish in the main pack, nine minutes down), so HTC’s plan was to help Rogers take some time back from Zabriskie. A huge crash shortly after leaving Visalia shaped their plans because most teams were involved in the pileup — notably RadioShack, which lost Armstrong to a gashed left cheek and elbow injury; and so the peloton was still regrouping when it reached the day’s first intermediate sprint in Lindsay.
Seeing an opportunity for a time bonus, HTC put Rogers in the draft of sprinter teammates Cavendish and Mark Renshaw. Garmin’s Robbie Hunter won the sprint with Rogers second, but Zabriskie came away empty-handed when Cavendish held firm to take the third-place bonus. Zabriskie’s overall lead was down to two seconds.
HTC then put Renshaw, relieved of his Cavendish duties, into the day’s key breakaway. The Aussie made repeated attacks in the final 50km to keep the break alive and gave teammates Rogers, van Garderen and Tony Martin an easy ride in the chase pack.
Renshaw was still on the attack with fellow Aussie Ben Day of Fly V Australia when they hit the Bakersfield circuit, where they made three trips up a short, hard hill to the finish on Panorama Bluffs. “When I saw that climb I knew it was gonna be difficult for the sprinters,” Renshaw said, “so after they caught me I made one last pull for the team, and then it was up to Michael and Tony.”
In the uphill finish, the GC riders headed the 29-strong sprint, with Sagan winning by several bike lengths and Rogers (led out by Martin) just beating Zabriskie for second place. The two were now level on overall time, but Rogers took the golden jersey because he finished ahead of Zabriskie in the sprint.
“It wasn’t the plan for Michael to take the jersey,” HTC team director Allan Peiper said. “He was trying to win the stage. So now we have a jersey to defend.”
When Rogers was interviewed by VeloNews in Sacramento, the day before the Amgen Tour began, he was somewhat tense, cognizant of how important this race was, not only to his team, based in San Luis Obispo, California, but also to his own career. “I’ve come here … in some of the best condition I’ve ever been in.” Rogers said. “I’ve worked damn hard this year and there hasn’t been a day when I haven’t thought about my important goals — and this is one of them. I’d love to go away with the overall win.”
Those were fighting words for a rider who has often been criticized for being too soft or uncommitted. Rogers, now 30, is massively gifted, having won multiple titles and medals as a junior and espoir on both road and track before he turned pro with the Italian team, Mapei, in 2001. He went on to win the world time trial championship three years in a row, 2003-05, but his form was always erratic.
The closest he came to finding consistency was in 2003, at age 22, when he won three very different stage races: the Tour of Belgium, Germany’s Deutschland Tour and the Route du Sud in the French Pyrénées. But he didn’t come close to repeating that successful run until he placed second at the Tour of Switzerland in 2005; his Tour de France results were disappointing: 42nd, 22nd and 41st in his three seasons with Quick Step. After moving to the powerful T-Mobile squad, he placed 10th overall in 2006.
Rogers finally appeared to have hit his stride in 2007, when his early season saw him place seventh at the Tour of California, fourth at Italy’s Coppi & Bartali Week and second at Spain’s Tour of Catalonia. He looked set for a great ride in the Tour, and his prospects looked even better when he got into a breakaway that pulled five minutes ahead of a fast-disintegrating pack midway through the second mountain stage. He was on track to take over the yellow jersey (which would go to another rider in the break) when, on the treacherous descent of an alpine pass, the Cormet de Roselend, he fell heavily after misjudging a sharp left turn.
“I got back up and tried to ride but realized I was hurt,” he said. It was a dislocated shoulder, and when the next climb began, he couldn’t pull on the bars and was forced to quit. “It’s a massive disappointment,” Rogers said. “I could see the yellow, I could taste it — now it’s gone. It’s bad luck, but I’ll be back.”
He briefly returned to racing that summer, finishing second to colleague Cadel Evans at the Olympic rehearsal time trial in Beijing, but life changed dramatically in September ’07 when his Italian wife Alessia gave birth to twin daughters, Matilde and Sofia. Their joy was mitigated by Alessia being hit by joint pains that locked up her limbs, which put added pressure on her husband. “Sometimes I feel I need 25 hours in the day to finish all my various commitments,” Rogers said after being a full-time dad and training through a cold Italian winter from his home in Varese.
Despite the hardships, Rogers was expected to have a solid 2008 as leader of a team that had metamorphosed from T-Mobile to High Road to Team Columbia under its new American owner Bob Stapleton. But his problems returned in March when he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus for the second time in his life.
“I went through some tough times, motivational times, after crashing out of the Tour and having glandular fever,” Rogers told his local paper in Australia, The Canberra Times. “To tell you the truth, I really wanted to quit the sport.”
Rogers didn’t ride for two months, but he did return to racing in late May, and even placed 11th at the Dauphiné Libéré in June; but his spell with glandular fever deprived him of base miles and he didn’t ride the Tour de France.
Instead, the Aussie prepared for the Beijing Olympics, where he made it into the winning breakaway in the road race, placing fifth, and then took eighth in the time trial. After finishing second at September’s Tour of Missouri, he looked set for an outstanding season in 2009.
It began well, with Rogers placing sixth at the Tour Down Under, third at the Tour of California (behind Leipheimer and Zabriskie) and eighth overall at the Giro d’Italia. But he had a disastrous Tour de France, ending up in 103rd overall, with his main contribution to HTC-Columbia’s Tour being the help he gave Cavendish in his six stage wins.
Rogers knew that he could do better.
“I got to the end of 2009 and really thought about life,” Rogers said. “And though I was happy with the way my family is, I was not really happy with how my cycling was going and I had to do something about it. I felt cycling was going in another direction, with new training methods and new technology, and I knew I had to change otherwise I’d be left behind.”
What Rogers hadn’t realized is that the answer to his problems was very close to home. Just down the road from Varese is the Mapei Sport Research Center headed by the 51-year-old Italian coach Aldo Sassi, whose clients include Cadel Evans and Ivan Basso.
“Aldo’s always been a very close friend from the Mapei days,” Rogers told VeloNews. “My wife and my mother-in-law all worked for Mapei. So I just picked up the phone and said, ‘Aldo, we need to speak.’ I met him a couple of days later for lunch and asked him if we could work together again.
“We were very close in my first couple of years as a professional, and then I went to Quick Step and we lost that relationship. It was just under my nose for so many years, and it was almost so close that I didn’t really recognize all the experience and the success that Aldo’s had … and he was so willing to help.
“I suppose my first years as a professional I ran off of a lot of talent, but to make it to the next level a change to life has to occur. He has changed my training dramatically, and I’ve worked really, really hard on my weight. You really have to do all those tiny things perfectly. I started treating every training day as almost a race … and it has worked so far. The results are coming my way.”
The leader’s jersey Rogers pulled on in Bakersfield was his third of 2010, after Spain’s Ruta del Sol (which he ended up winning) and Switzerland’s Tour de Romandie (which he lost on the final day, ending up in third). This season has also seen him finish second overall at the Critérium International, third in the Montepaschi Strade Bianche classic and sixth overall at Tirreno-Adriatico.
Those are results that give a team faith in its leader, and that’s what the HTC-Columbia riders had when they set out on the Amgen Tour’s sixth stage through the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains to Big Bear Lake — which was the week’s longest at 217.7km and also the most grueling, with seven categorized climbs of up to 8,000-foot elevation and more than 14,000 vertical feet of actual climbing.
“It’s gonna be a really tough day,” HTC’s Renshaw said. “Hopefully, Michael can go with the RadioShack guys when they go.”
His was an accepted view of the likely scenario because RadioShack was fielding its big guns, including noted climbers Horner, Popovych and Jani Brajkovic, but team leader Leipheimer wasn’t so sure his men would be dominant.
When VeloNews asked the defending champion at the start in the sunny Mojave Desert city of Palmdale what he saw happening, he said, “I don’t know. Honestly, I’ve no idea. The last 50k there’s not a lot of really hard climbing.”
Leipheimer said he’d miss not having Armstrong at his side, while he had doubts that veteran teammate Chechu Rubiera, suffering with severe road rash from the previous day’s crash, would make it through the mountains.
As for Zabriskie’s Garmin team, first lieutenant Ryder Hesjedal said, “The most important thing is to stick with Dave, so I need to keep near the front. It’s worked so far.” The Canadian said he didn’t know the climbs, but noted that he’d won quite a few mountain bike races at Big Bear in the early part of his cycling career.
This stage was billed as the Tour of California’s first-ever mountaintop finish, but Leipheimer and the other contenders knew otherwise because the short uphill finish in the ski town was preceded by 20km of mostly flat terrain from the last 7,100-foot crest along California Highway 18. That didn’t mean it was an easy stage because 18 riders abandoned the race, another 11 finished outside the time limit, and only 30 finished within half an hour of the lead group of 21.
Despite all the climbing, the stage proved to be a tactical battle, with HTC-Columbia put on the defensive by a breakaway that contained riders from rival teams Garmin (Matt Wilson), RadioShack (Jason McCartney) and Saxo Bank (Jakob Fuglsang and Andy Schleck), along with the move’s highest-placed rider, George Hincapie of BMC Racing, who was looking for a stage win.
When the seven-man break reached the last of the climbs along the Angeles Crest Highway, midway through the six-hour stage, the gap was approaching seven minutes and was giving Rogers’ team an unwanted headache. But that was as much rope as the leaders would be given.
HTC sport director Allan Peiper was thrilled with his riders’ response to the challenge. “The whole team was just fantastic today,” he told VeloNews. “It’s not Mark Cavendish’s terrain but even Mark Renshaw did some work at the start, and Lars Bak crashed yesterday in the Armstrong crash so he wasn’t good today.
“But we used Bernie Eisel and Bert Grabsch for something like 140Ks, climb after climb. We had a little bit of help from Garmin halfway through the stage — and if we cracked they were going to have to ride anyway.”
After their enormous stint on the front, veterans Eisel and Grabsch eventually sat up when they reached the first gnarly gradients of the multi-step climb up to Big Bear, with 65km to go.
“We were down to three guys,” Peiper said, “but Martin and Tejay held it together on those climbs in the last 50 kilometers; they bridged every gap. Every time The Shack went, one of them went with them, and closed it down, and then they started riding again [to close down the Hincapie break]. And this happened time after time. They were absolutely amazing.”
Some of those Shack attacks were made by Horner, who commented in unusually laconic fashion, “Big chain ring, lot of wind, big road. There’s absolutely no way you can get away on a stage like that … bunch sprint.”
Even so, after the final climb, UHC’s well-placed Dutchman Marc De Maar and Garmin’s Wilson did break clear, putting even more pressure on HTC’s van Garderen and Martin. But, Peiper added, “Even when the two guys got away to 30 seconds in the last 20ks, they just pulled them back, pulled them back … and reeled them in with 2k to go. It was a perfect scenario. Mick Rogers didn’t have to lift a finger the whole day.”
The GC protagonists all challenged for time bonuses in the gradually rising final kilometer, but as Rogers said, “When I saw that Sagan was still there I knew he was going to win.”
The race leader looked like he would snag second place, but UHC’s Sutherland burst past him before the line, where Rogers held off Leipheimer and Hesjedal for the last bonus, two seconds, to extend his small overall advantage over Zabriskie before the next afternoon’s time trial.
“Everyone threw everything they had today,” a smiling Rogers said before heading to a leisurely dinner in the mountain town, “so I’m happy to hold on.”
Going into the TT in downtown Los Angeles, thanks to the cumulative time bonuses, Rogers had four seconds on Zabriskie and 14 on Leipheimer. If the stage had been on the familiar 24km course at Solvang, where Leipheimer had won each of the past three TTs (defeating Jens Voigt by 18 seconds in 2007, David Millar by 24 seconds in ’08 and Zabriskie by eight seconds last year), the RadioShack rider might have turned things around. Especially as this year’s two-lap, 33.6km TT was almost 10km longer.
But the main obstacles on the LA course were rough city streets and gusting side winds, rather than smooth back roads and steep hills; so the advantage was with taller, heavier riders.
Rogers, Zabriskie and eventual stage winner Martin are all 6 feet or taller and weigh around 160 pounds, while Leipheimer is 6 inches
shorter and 30 pounds lighter than his rivals. “For the way I felt, I pushed it as hard as I could and didn’t make any mistakes,” Leipheimer said. “It was really windy and rough out there and hard to hold onto the bars.”
Despite that, the time gaps between the three protagonists were minimal. On the second lap of the spectacular circuit past the modern high-rises, Rogers and Leipheimer both recorded 21:10 for the 17.1km while Zabriskie was one second slower. The time gaps were all made on the opening lap, when Rogers was four seconds faster than Zabriskie and 11 seconds better than the defending champion.
Rogers was thrilled by his teammate Martin’s victory and just satisfied that he had extended his overall lead on Zabriskie to nine seconds. The Garmin team leader showed his own disappointment in not doing better than third in his recently adopted hometown, but he was not discouraged.
“It’s not over till it’s over,” Zabriskie said. “Tomorrow’s a very hard course. I’ve surveyed the course. It can be windy and there are a couple of good climbs.”
There had been much speculation that the hilly, 134.3km final stage at Thousand Oaks would prove decisive. It did produce a spectacular race, but as Leipheimer noted: “This Tour of California has been very, very hard and among the top few there hasn’t been much selection. It’s been very tight all week … and [this last day] won’t be any different.”
He was right. After a major selection the first time up the infamous 5km-long Rock Store climb left only 25 riders together, the speed settled down, with Hincapie again getting away in a good-looking breakaway. But the U.S. road champion’s small group was caught on the final descent by Garmin’s Hesjedal (who won the stage) and RadioShack’s Horner, after their leaders had both made their best efforts and failed to get rid of a tenacious Rogers — again following superb support work by Martin and van Garderen — on the windswept steeps of Rock Store with 12km remaining of the fourth and final lap.
Asked whether his overall success was on the level of a Dauphiné Libéré or Tour of Switzerland victory, Rogers told VeloNews, “I think it is for me. Obviously riding for a California-based team, HTC-Columbia, this is as important as it comes … this is a huge step for us.”
He then reflected on his turnaround this year, and on his metamorphosis from Tour de France wannabe to genuine contender. “From 2007 until this year has been a tough period of my life.” Rogers said. “This year I’ve really put it back on track and this is my second win for the season, so I’m over the moon. It’s been a long, hard track back, but I think it’s moments like these you savor a lot more than you would if it was easy the whole time.”
Earlier that day, in Italy, Ivan Basso and Cadel Evans finished first and second in the Giro stage on Monte Zoncolan. Did Rogers think that this was a coincidence, that those other clients of coach Sassi were dominating when he was winning the Tour of California? “It certainly speaks for Aldo,” he said. “He’s been training elite athletes for a lifetime. That’s what he loves.
“He stayed up all night in Europe to watch my time trial yesterday and called me straight after and needed my feedback — how I felt, whether I was on top of my game. It’s more than having a really close relationship, and that’s what you need to take it to the next level.”
Rogers’ success was all the more inspirational for Sassi, given that the Italian coach was battling cancer, having had a brain tumor surgically removed a few weeks earlier. “He’s going through a very tough time at the moment,” Rogers said, “and I think he finds a lot of personal satisfaction out of the right results, not only in what I’m doing but also Ivan and Cadel, and I hope that gives him the energy to beat it.”
Then, responding to the million-dollar question of his Tour de France prospects, this more confident Rogers said, “I really hope I can finish in the top five, and continue the progression that I’ve had this year. And if everything goes perfectly I think I can have a good shot at it. Contador is probably a step above everyone, but then I think there’s a bunch of guys that are all together in terms of physical condition, and I really hope to be part of that.”
A few minutes after this interview, from the car taking him to a celebration dinner in Malibu, Rogers entered this on his Twitter account: “That victory was for Aldo Sassi. Never lose sight of the light at the end of the tunnel.”