Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) narrowly won the first stage of the 2014 Amgen Tour of California on Sunday in Sacramento.
Kiel Reijnen (UnitedHealthcare) was the sole survivor of a late break, but he too was swept up in the last of three laps on a downtown circuit as Cannondale and Omega Pharma took charge of the chase.
With one kilometer to race Giant-Shimano had taken the point, but with 300 meters to go Omega’s Tom Boonen was battling to slingshot Cavendish to the line. John Degenkolb (Giant) was driving for the win alongside, and it was a near thing indeed, with no time for a finish-line celebration.
“I knew Mark was straight behind me,” Degenkolb said. “My strength is to do a long sprint, and I think I timed it well, I didn’t go too early, and not too late. In the end I saw him on my right side, coming not really quickly, but slowly and surely. I was trying to avoid him overtaking me, but I couldn’t succeed. I knew at the line he had the victory.”
A few minutes passed, and then Cavendish broke into a big grin and the hugs began -- the photo finish showed he’d edged Degenkolb by a tire’s width. Moreno Hofland (Belkin) rounded out the podium in third.
“To be fair, I won Milano-Sanremo by 10 centimeters before,” Cavendish said. “I’ve lost a sprint in the Giro d’Italia by three centimeters. Both of those, I knew the outcome. This is the first time in my career I really had no idea. I had to wait a little bit until they confirmed.”
The kickoff was the longest stage of the 2014 tour at 123 miles, starting and ending at the State Capitol building in downtown Sacramento.
A break formed early on, containing Matt Cooke (Jamis-Sutter Home), Charles Planet (Team Novo Nordisk), Thomas Leezer (Belkin), Tao Geoghegan Hart (Bissell Development), Isaac Bolivar (UnitedHealthcare) and Eric Young (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies).
The escapees quickly took five minutes on the bunch, working well together, but as Omega Pharma and Giant-Shimano took an interest, the leash tightened, and with 41 miles remaining their gap was slashed and then erased.
With the catch made, Sky used a shift in wind to split the bunch, and suddenly there was a front group composed of 15 riders, among them some very dangerous men indeed: Greg Van Avermaet and Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing); Tom Boonen, Cavendish, Mark Renshaw and Matteo Trentin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step); Matthew Busche, Markel Irizar and Jasper Stuyven (Trek Factory Racing); Bradley Wiggins and Luke Rowe (Sky); Zakhari Dempster and Andreas Schillinger (NetApp-Endura); Moreno Hofland (Belkin) and Matthew Goss (Orica-GreenEdge).
Garmin-Sharp and Cannondale were among the teams missing out on the move.
“We knew it was going to be windy, but to be honest the wind changed direction on the way back,” Cavendish said. We thought it was going to be a crosswind in the last 20 miles on the main road on the way to Sacramento. We sensed the move that split the group.
"Omega Pharma-Quick-Step is a Belgian team. We felt the crosswinds, knew the split was going to happen, and we just went straight to the front. It split and we were there. We were well represented with four guys.”
The leaders had perhaps 45 seconds on the pack with less than 25 miles to race. A crash behind interrupted the pursuit, putting Garmin’s Rohan Dennis on the deck. But it soon resumed, and the escapees were pulled back short of the Sacramento city limits.
Phinney and Boonen tried to counter the catch, but got nowhere. Peter Sagan (Cannondale) likewise showed the colors, briefly.
Then Kiel Reijnen (UnitedHealthcare), Jacob Rathe (Jelly Belly) and Greg Daniel (Bissell Development) had a dig coming into town with 10 miles to go, and the trio led the way onto the finishing circuit.
Rathe dropped off the break early on the first go-round and Daniel faded next, leaving Reijnen alone off the front.
Entering lap two the peloton was massed across the road, confident of pulling Reijnen back at their leisure. But as Cannondale began stretching out the chase he had built a 20-second advantage.
He wouldn’t keep it. Going into the final lap Reijnen had only a few bike lengths, and then was swept up by the thundering herd. A bunch sprint was in the offing, and it was a beauty.
“It was hard, that line was coming up too fast, and John was strong today,” Cavendish said. “But my Omega Pharma-Quick-Step teammates did a perfect job to keep me up there. There were a lot of trains vying for position. I could feel the work we did earlier in my sprint, and I could see it in the guys setting up for the sprint. But they still kept me up there and led me out perfectly.
"We gave a good show, and we got the best result from our effort. I’m really proud of what we did today.”