Sebastian Salas and Alex Candelario continued to build on their successes today at the fourth stage of the Amen Tour of California, battling scorching heat and an unforgiving course route on the road from Sonora to Clovis. Salas retained the Nissan King of the Mountains jersey on a stage with six categorized climbs, and Candelario finished strong in another frantic field sprint, finishing 8th. Slovakian superstar Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) won his fourth consecutive stage in the race, breaking the record for stage wins at the Tour of California.
"Sebastian, Cando, and the rest of the team did a great job today dealing with a lot of unexpected variables," said Performance Manager Eric Wohlberg. "Going into today, we anticipated the ProTour teams would take it easy as they have been doing all week, and we really thought Sebastian was going to end up in a head-to-head battle with his competitors in the KOM contest, but that wasn't the case."
Instead, the pace was swift from the start line and the peloton began climbing almost immediately. Salas and his teammates were prepared for the challenge, which would be played out across the canyon roads of the CA-49 byway.
"The team did an amazing job setting me up early today - we were working well together and it seemed like I might escape like we planned, but the ProTour teams seemed like they didn't want that to happen, and they were chasing us down." said Salas.
Despite the pressure applied in the early goings, the Optum p/b KBS team kept attacking, and Salas was delivered in great position on the first category four climb.
"There were six riders trying to get away on the first climb, and Creed and the rest of the guys got me set up with about 1 km to go and I launched a bomb. Fortunately I was able to get up the hill first and take a few more points."
The four points Sebastian claimed on the climb, which brought his total to 40, was all he would need to hold onto the polka dot jersey. Shortly after his efforts on the first climb, the race was turned on it's head. A dangerous, large breakaway snuck away on the first descent and rapidly expanded it's lead on the peloton.
"Even though we missed the break and the stage didn't unfold like we planned, once we figured out who was in the move we breathed a bit easier," said Wohlberg. "We knew that even if a rider in the break won all five remaining climbs, it still wouldn't be enough points to take the jersey. That isn't exactly how we wanted things to happen, but it definitely works."
Although not considering it at the time, Sebastian's efforts on the first climb was all he needed to secure the jersey as the ProTour-heavy breakaway separated itself by several minutes and ticked away the KOM points one by one.
"That was really a strong move today with some serious general classification contenders, and we figured they would stay up the road for a while," said Wohlberg. "It was an added bonus that the points were scattered among a bunch of different riders - a few guys scored quite a few, but nothing to alter the standings too much. I would definitely say we got a bit lucky today."
The breakaway was chased down shortly before the final climb, and a consolidated peloton cleared the mountain pass together. Only one long, steep descent and a section of flats separated the riders from the finish line in Clovis. Alex Candelario, coming off his fourth place finish in yesterday's world-class field sprint, once again made it through a day packed with difficult climbing. He found himself in good position for the sprint.
"Zirbel and Hanson were there with me near the finish, doing a good job trying to keep me near the front, but I think we were all pretty gassed from the heat and the climbing," said Candelario of his 8th place finish. "It's always tough to sprint effectively against this competition after such a brutal day, but the team worked so hard all day to get me close and I gave it everything I had left in the tank."
Tomorrow will provide a bit of "relief" from the relentless climbing and descending the riders have faced so far, with the 18 mile individual time trial in Bakersfield.