Gesink, Sagan are strong and talented in Tour of California
Netherlands' Robert Gesink won the biggest cycling race on American soil
Peter Sagan, who won five of the seven stages, showed his serious strength
This race set the stage for several American cyclists for the U.S. Olympic team
Conclusions to be drawn from last week's seven-day Amgen Tour of California, won by Robert Gesink of the Netherlands:
• Gesink is as tough as he is talented. Attacking five kilometers from the granite-studded summit of Mt. Baldy during Stage 7 on Saturday, Rabobank's rising star dropped Tejay van Garderen of BMC, and Garmin-Barracuda teammates Tom Danielson and Dave Zabriskie -- all threats for the overall victory -- before snatching the stage win from Colombian mountain goat Darwin Atapuma. Finishing with the main bunch the next day, Gesink won the biggest stage race on American soil by 46 seconds -- eight months after fracturing his right leg in four places in a training crash.
• Peter Sagan is a superstar. The young Slovakian for Team Liquigas-Cannondale turned this weeklong stage race into a velo-version of "Groundhog's Day." Sagan, 22, won the first four of the race's stages and five of seven total, a testament to his inhuman strength and burst -- and, some felt, to a lack of imagination on the part of the people who designed this year's course.
"The course has been ... pretty much the same thing every day," noted legendary sprinter Robbie McEwen, after Sagan made it four in a row. "Hard enough to get rid of real fair dinkum sprinters" -- McEwen is Australian, clearly -- "but not hard enough for the climbers to make an impact. So you're getting the same result, literally, every day."
Sagan now has an astounding 22 professional stage victories. While he will never win a grand tour -- he seems a trifle too big to be an elite climber -- McEwen, who retired after the race and will become a coach for the Aussie squad Team GreenEdge, sees him as a potentially dominant rider in Europe's one-day classics. Sagan is what Italians describe as a passista and the French call a roleur -- a strong, tough rider able to hammer at the front of the peloton for hours on end. With that strength, Sagan combines a sprinter's fast-twitch fibers; for his fifth ATOC stage win, on Sunday, he beat Tom Boonen by half a bike-length and then declared, "I like this country."
• The kids are all right. When pre-race favorite and defending ATOC champion Chris Horner fell out of contention with a slower-than-expected time trial in Bakersfield on May 17th, young Americans van Garderen and Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Barracuda) were there to pick up the slack. Van Garderen, 22, placed fifth in the prestigious Paris-Nice stage race last March, and wore the King of the Mountains jersey briefly in last year's Tour de France. He blew by the 40-year-old Horner early in Thursday's time trial course, on his way to a third-place finish in the stage. Talansky, 23, coming off an impressive second-place finish at the Tour of Romandie in Switzerland, placed fifth.
Van Garderen's 21-year-old teammate Taylor Phinney, meanwhile, was overseas contesting in the Giro d'Italia, in which he wore the race leader's pink jersey for four days. Like Sagan, Phinney has a gleaming future as a classics rider. The one-time world champion in the individual pursuit, he is custom-designed to win prologues and flat time trials. But the kid is always going to have trouble getting his 6'5", 180-pound frame over the mountains in a grand tour. As the Lance Armstrong era fades into history and as Horner, Levi Leipheimer, 38 and Christian Vande Velde, 36, push further into the twilights of their careers, Talansky and van Garderen are the young Americans best positioned to ascend the podium at the Tour de France.
• London is calling Kristin Armstrong and Dave Zabriskie. With their dominant wins in Thursday's time trial, Armstrong, who rides for Exergy-TWENTY12, and Zabriskie, who rode in his blue skinsuit and star-topped headgear begging the nickname 'Captain America,' look like slam-dunks for slots on the U.S. Olympic team.
For the second straight year, the Tour of California featured a women's time trial, held on the same course the men would ride later in the day. Armstrong, the reigning Olympic champion in the individual time trial, finished in 39:48; her time was less than four minutes slower than the time posted by Zabriskie. He crushed the men's field and finished in 35:59, 23 seconds ahead of the next competitor, averaging nearly 31 miles per hour over the 18.4-mile course.
Olympic selections will take place by mid-June and currently, the question seems to be not so much whether Armstrong makes the team, but if she competes in both the time trial and the road race. While Armstrong dominated a largely domestic field in California, she's raced well against international competition this year, coming second in the women's Ronde van Blaanderen, and winning three stage races.
"I feel great about where I am internationally, said Armstrong. "I've done several time trials against the best in the world ... so far I've been on a winning streak."
Captain America (Zabriskie wanted to be a superhero growing up, "but unfortunately there was no crime where I lived") was motivated during the time trial by the desire to punch his ticket to London. To do that, he put in plenty of offseason homework. "I came out in the winter, rode [the course]." He and his wife Randi and their two children made the recon a family affair. "There's a nice petting zoo on the course," reported Zabriskie. Having videotaped the time trial circuit, "I watched it many times. Knew where I wanted to go hard: soccer field, petting zoo, make it to the tree line. I had a real plan going into this race."
He took the race lead that day, but lost it to Gesink on the slopes of Mt. Baldy two days later; Zabriskie now has four second-place finishes in Tour of California. If they gave the trophy to the guy who's the best quote, Captain America would be undefeated.