There was as much a difference between Bradley Wiggins' Tour of California stage 3 and stage 6 as there is between the names of the mountains he had to climb.
While Mt. Diablo offered isolation and a 20 second loss to Garmin Sharp's Rohan Dennis, Wiggins was in the comfort of his teammates all the way up to the closing kilometres on Friday's Mountain High stage.
Team Sky's Ian Boswell, Nathan Earle and Luke Rowe managed to keep the breakaway of the day – including two riders less than four minutes down in the general classification – in check.
And as the peloton started climbing some 20 kilometres, Wiggins enjoyed the company of mates Danny Pate, Christian Knees, Josh Edmondson and Joe Dombrowski whose steady riding set the tempo for the former Tour de France winner.
It left the group, containing all of Wiggins' major general classification rivals, with precious few opportunities to attack.
“Once again the three guys rode the whole day to keep the break at four minutes, and then on the last climb from Danny Pate and Christian Knees to young Josh and then Joe at the end there, it was an incredible team effort throughout the day to put me in that position with a kilometer to go to wind it up to the line," Wiggins told reporters.
Despite finishing fifth on the stage, 53 seconds off Esteban Chaves (Orica – GreenEdge) who took the stage, Wiggins' could be pleased because he was ahead of rivals Dennis, Lawson Craddock (Giant – Shimano) and Tiago Machado (Team NetApp – Edura) and actually extended his lead.
Dennis, now 30 seconds behind Wiggins overall, acknowledged that the main difference between stage 3 on Mt. Diablo and the Mountain High stage came down to good pacing and a refusal to panic by the Sky team when other riders escaped.
“They rode a better tempo on the climb today,” Dennis said. “They didn't overreach themselves, and they really rode it to perfection. We did everything we could to put the pressure on them, and they didn't take the bait at all. So hats off to them.”
Garmin – Sharp's Tom Danielson, 4:39 down on Wiggins before Friday's stage, was in the breakaway that escaped about 40 minutes into the four-hour stage.
Reaching the climb, Garmin had Dennis, Ben King and Janier Acevedo in the bunch. The latter pair tried to lure out Wiggins' support by attacking early on the climb but the Sky riders kept their cool and refused to take up the chase, acknowledging the mistakes made on stage 3.
“The beginning of the [Diablo] climb has got some rollers and some downhills, so you can be doing 450 watts on the front and the guys behind are coasting,” Dombrowski said.
“And then once we finally hit the climb, Brad was isolated. Ultimately we saw that he was so strong it was fine, but normally we wouldn't want to leave him alone for so long.”
The Sky riders had no wish of repeating their Mt. Diablo mistakes on Mountain High.
“You saw Acevedo went up the road fairly early on,” Dombrowski said. “So I think for us we know that those big accelerations these guys make a ways out from the finish – you know it's been super hot all week, we're at altitude – and that's just not sustainable. So you just need to not get too excited and ride within yourself. Ultimately, you're going to pull them back, so just be patient.”
Wiggins preserved his 30 second lead on the penultimate stage from Santa Clarita to Pasadena - Cannondale's Peter Sagan took the sprint finish - and his teammates now need to protect him for just one more stage on Sunday when the riders take on a short but difficult circuit around Thousand Oaks outside Los Angeles.
Wiggins knows they can not let their guards down but feels their most difficult challenges are now behind them.
“Today was the one, really, that you don't necessarily fear, but you know that that's going to be the one,” he said of the Mountain High stage.
“The job's not done, but we're 90 percent there. We've just got to get through the next two days now and not lay our heads down too much and focus again and really finish the job off.”
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