BIG BEAR LAKE, California (VN) — The stage is set and one thing is certain: the winner of the Amgen Tour of California will be exposed on the summit of Mount Baldy on Saturday.
The 3.6-mile climb, with 1,791 feet of elevation gain, an average gradient of 9.5 percent and maximum gradient of 15 percent, will undoubtedly be the scene of an intense, excruciating battle. Maybe it doesn’t seem fair that with four stage wins, Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) won’t be the winner of the tour. But cycling often comes down to the torture of a single climb. And what a climb it will be.
With three riders in the top 10, is Garmin-Barracuda in the driver’s seat? Dave Zabriskie still leads after a challenging day to Big Bear Lake, with Andrew Talansky sitting fifth at 48 seconds and Tom Danielson in seventh at 1:07. But the race is far from over. Will the team gain strength from numbers?
Team director Jonathan Vaughters doesn’t think so. “[Saturday] is just legs… the best rider is going to win. On a steep grade like Mount Baldy, it all comes down to who has the best legs. There’s no decision-making on my part. They’re going 10 kilometers per hour all out.”
So, the question becomes, who has the strongest form this year? It isn’t Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan), or Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), the two men who crossed the line at the Mount Baldy Ski Lifts together, hand-in-hand in victory, last year. It’s hard to know, of course, but we know which riders have proven they excel on climbs like Baldy and there are two who rise above the rest: Tom Danielson and Robert Gesink (Rabobank).
“I think Tom Danielson could win the stage and possibly the overall,” said Talansky. “It’s a climb that’s great for him, with the altitude and the steepness. We have an opportunity to do something really special [on Saturday].”
On paper, nothing changed after Friday’s climb-filled stage. If we could talk to the riders’ legs, they might tell a different story. Unfortunately, they’re locked away in hotel rooms resting up for the showdown.
We have only history as an indicator of who might come out on top. And history says that Danielson rides best when he can attack the steeps. He’s done it to secure overall victories at the Tour of Qinghai Lake in 2002, the Tour of Langkawi in 2003, and the Tour of Georgia in 2005, all having notoriously precipitous slopes. But, in racing terms, those are ancient history. We can look to last year, then, and his performance on Mount Baldy.
On that day, he finished 1:01 behind Horner and Leipheimer, two riders who may still be in the race, but aren’t on the form they had last year. And Laurens Ten Dam, who finished third in 2011, abandoned on stage 6.
Who else can challenge? Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), who sits second overall and 33 seconds in front of Danielson, finished 28 seconds behind him in 2011. The young American told VeloNews on Thursday that he would play the Baldy climb patiently, having learned from his disappointment at Sierra Road, where he saw his GC hopes fade in a hypoxic haze in 2011.
“I’m feeling pretty comfortable on the climbs,” said van Garderen. “The guys I need to watch more carefully are Robert Gesink and Peter Velits. Hopefully they’ll keep more of a steady tempo and if I can hold their wheel, then I can win the race.”
Peter Velits, up on Danielson by 22 seconds, finished 3:07 behind the Garmin rider last year. Talansky, only 19 seconds up on Danielson, is undoubtedly on a different level than he was last year when he finished 5:24 down. Of these men, the math would predict a dazzling duel between Danielson and van Garderen. Robert Gesink wasn’t in the race, but we know what the lithe Dutchman can do. In 2010 he won a prestigious climbing stage at the Tour de Suisse, and followed up a few months later with a win at the hilly Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal.
But this is 2012; let’s throw all of that math out the window. The only calculation that will matter on Saturday is at the finish line above Ontario.
We may see Gesink glide into the yellow jersey and confirm that his form is back after a broken leg in September. With a 28-second advantage going into Gesink’s favorite territory, can anyone stop him?
“I’m at a good point for GC,” he told VeloNews on Friday. “I feel good uphill, so I’m looking forward to those moments… If you’re third position, everything is possible.”
Or we may see Danielson cross the line only to start counting the seconds to his rivals. His eighth-place finish at the Tour de France in 2011 may have been just the thing he needed to bring him back to his winning ways.
“I am definitely ready to get [Saturday] going,” Danielson said. “I’m really looking forward to that stage; I really like that stage. We’ll see. You’ve got to have the legs and hopefully I have the legs.”
Regardless of who wins in what is shaping up to be a ferocious battle on the race’s “climb of truth,” the fact that we’re listing this many contenders for overall victory this late in the Amgen Tour, means that, after the sensational display by Peter Sagan, the true winner will be cycling fans.
“There’s going to be pandemonium,” said Dave Towle, the voice of this year’s Tour of California. “I couldn’t imagine a greater day than what we have coming up on Mount Baldy.”