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Having joined a four-rider break after a hectic start, King beat Huffmann in a two-rider sprint to win stage 2 of the Tour of California and move into the race lead; Kristoff beat Sagan in the reduced bunch sprint for third

Photo: Cannondale-Garming Pro Cycling

ALEXANDER KRISTOFF

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17.05.2016 @ 01:22 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Ben King (Cannondale) proved that he is back on track after an injury-marred start to the season when he took a hugely surprising win on stage 2 of the Tour of California. Having joined a four-rider break in the tough and fast start to the race, he managed to beat Evan Huffman (Rally) in a two-rider sprint just eight seconds before Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) beat race leader Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) in the reduced bunch kick for third. The win allowed King to take the yellow jersey on the eve of the queen stage.

 

Ben King is known as a loyal domestique but the strong American has developed into a bit of a breakaway specialist. In 2010, he took a solo win at the American Road Race Championships, in 2014 he was close to victory in a mountain stage at Tirreno-Adriatico and last year he broke a long Cannondale drought by taking the first win of the season for the American team by denying the sprinters on the first stage of the Criterium International.

 

Having featured prominently in the break in his home World Championships in Richmond, he was hoping to build on his progress in 2016 but things got off to a rocky start when he broke his fibula in a training crash in January. Hence, he only made a belated season start at the Volta a Catalunya in late March and since then he has slowly trying to build his condition by riding the Ardennes classics.

 

King now has his eyes on selection for the Cannondale team for the Tour de France and he has focused on the Tour of California as his first race to prove that he deserves a chance. Today he firmly proved both his status as a breakaway specialist and that he is a strong contender for one of the nine spots for the French race when he rode to victory in stage 2 of the American race by narrowly holding off a reduced bunch after a tough and hilly day in the saddle.

 

After yesterday’s sprint stage, the terrain was hillier in stage which brought the riders over just 148.5km from South Pasadena to Santa Clarita. Right from the start, the riders went up the 14.1km climb of Angeles Crest Highway before they tackled a category 2 climb. A long descent led to two category 2 climbs which came in quick succession for a total amount of 7.3km of climbing and then slightly descending roads with a few small hills brought the riders the final 30km to the flat finish.

 

The clouds of yesterday were replaced by excellent sunny conditions when the riders gathered for the start. All riders that finished yesterday’s stage were present as they rolled out for their neutral ride and they were all keen to race as soon as the flag was dropped.

 

Right from the gun, there were lots of attacks and as a result a big 22-rider group had formed after less than 10km of racing. Daniel Eaton (Unitedhealthcare), Jempy Drucker (BMC), Neilson Powless (Axeon), Jesse Anthony (Rally), Travis McCabe (Holowesko), Maximilano Richeze (Etixx-QuickStep), Adam Blythe (Tinkoff), Tiago Machado (Katusha), Benjamin King (Cannondale), Jasper Stuyven (Trek), Peter Kennaugh (Sky), Michael Gogl (Tinkoff), Adam De Vos (Rally), William Barta (Axeon), Caleb Fairly (Giant-Alpecin), Michael Schär (BMC), Alexey Vermeulen (LottoNL-Jumbo), Jordan Cheyne (Jelly Belly), Julian Arredondo (Trek), Geoffrey Curran (Axeon), Daniel Patten (Wiggins) and Nathan Haas (Dimension Data) managed to open a 35-second advantage.

 

However, Direct Energie had missed the move and so they started to chase hard. Meanwhile, the front group hit the Angeles Crest Highway climb which immediately took its toll as Blythe and later also Patten and Fairly were dropped from the group and Wouter Wippert (Cannondale) fell off the pace in the peloton.

 

Blythe, Patten and Fairly were picked up by the peloton which was 20 seconds behind five kilometres from the top of the climb. Here Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) became the next sprinter to lose contact with the field.

 

The break was too big to succeed and so it all came back together as they approached the top of the climb. King went again and managed to open a 10-second advantage before five riders took off in pursuit. From that group, Haas bridged the gap to King just one kilometre from the top but the pair were caught just metres from the KOM sprint. Instead, it was Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep) who won the battle for points as he led Daniel Jaramillo (Unitedhealthcare), Powless, Rohan Dennis (BMC) and Phil Gaimon (Cannondale) over the top.

 

Alaphilippe, Jaramillo and Powless pushed clear and managed to open a 20-second advantage before a big group with Robin Carpenter (Holowesko) joined the move. However, Alaphilippe was obviously too dangerous to give just the slightest advantage and so it all came back together on the descent.

 

The attacking continued and it was the relentless King who made his way into a four-rider move with Evan Huffman (Rally), Sindre Lunke (Giant-Alpecin) and Barta. As the peloton finally took a small breather, they quickly opened a 50-second advantage and it went out to 2 minutes after an hour of racing at an average speed of 36.2km/h.

 

The gap was 2.45 as the front quartet hit the bottom of the second climb and as the peloton went slowly up the ascent, it had gone out to 4.25 at the 50km mark.  When Huffman beat King, Barta and Lunke in the KOM sprint, it was even six minutes and it reached 7.30 before the peloton finally initiated the chase.

 

Unsurprisingly, it was Peter Sagan’s Tinkoff team that took control and with Nikolay Trusov, Erik Baska, Michal Kolar and Oscar Gatto taking some huge turns, they started to reduce the gap. Trek also came to the fore to lend them a hand with Markel Irizar when they entered the final 75km with a deficit of 6.30.

 

Trek and Tinkoff worked well together on the descent to bring the gap further down and it was only 5.15 when they passed the 60km to go mark. At this point, Direct Energie also showed their cards, with the French team being keen to give it a go in a reduced bunch sprint with Bryan Coquard. Bryan Nauleau and Ryan Anderson from the French team started to trade pulls with Trusov, Gatto, Baska, Kolar and Irizar.

 

King easily beat Barta and Lunke in the first intermediate sprint with 55km to go before the peloton crossed the line 4.20 later. Ten kilometres later, the hard work by Direct Energie, Trek and Tinkoff had reduced the gap to just 3.30.

 

As the escapees hit the first of the two late climbs, the gap had been reduced to just 3 minutes and as Irizar, Nauleau, Anderson, Baska and Trusov taking huge turns in the peloton, they were still losing ground. At the same time, the climb immediately took its toll as riders were getting distanced from the peloton and the Tinkoff domestiques also swung off, leaving it to Anderson, Nauleau and Irizar to set the pace.

 

King was doing a lot of work in the break and this was too much for Lunke who lost contact as they were less than three kilometre from the top. However, the work paid off as the gap went out from 2.40 to 3.15. At the same time, Nauleau, Anderson and Irizar clearly upped the pace and that had an immediate effect as Mark Cavendish, Bernhard Eisel, Mark Renshaw (Dimension Data), Groenewegen, Andrea Peron (Novo Nordisk), Jempy Drucker (BMC) and Bradley Wiggins (Wiggins) were among the many riders to get dropped.

 

Huffman and King sprinted for the points in the KOM sprint and it was the Rally rider who narrowly edged out his compatriot, with Barta crossing the line in third position and Lunke reaching the top 45 seconds later. In the peloton, Irizar took a massive turn to send more riders, including Nauleau, out the back door before Michael Gogl (Tinkoff) hit the front to lead the peloton over the top 3.15 behind the escapees.

 

The three surviving Tinkoff riders Juraj and Peter Sagan and Gogl hit the front on the descent to make sure that there was no chance to return for the likes of Cavendish and Groenewegen. However, they disappeared as soon as they hit the next climb, Irizar, Anderson and Nauleau who has rejoined the group, went back to work.

 

Realizing that Drucker had been dropped and that the gap had gone out to 3.25, BMC decided that they needed a harder race. Michael Schär and Danilo Wyss upped the pace significantly and immediately created an even bigger selection while the rest of the team gathered just behind the Swiss pair

 

King opted not to contest the KOM sprint and so Huffman was allowed to lead the Cannondale rider and Barta over the top to make sure that he will wear the mountains jersey tomorrow. Meanwhile, Schär and Wyss brought Lunke back before Rohan Dennis (BMC) tested his legs by moving ahead over the top before dropping back into the line of BMC riders. At this point, the gap was still 3 minutes.

 

Barta had bad luck on the descent as he suffered an untimely puncture and even though he quickly got a bike change, there was no time to wait for the young American. Hence, it looked like Huffman and King had to press on alone as they tried to keep the hard chase of Wyss and Schär at bay. However, the young American proved his talent by making it back to the front before King led Huffman and Barta across the line in the final intermediate sprint.

 

There was more drama on the descent as Vasil Kiryienka hit the ground hard but the strong Belarusian managed to get back on his bike. He found his place in the gruppetto before Schär and Wyss hit the flat final 25km 2.35 behind the leaders.

 

Alexander Kristoff had made it over the climb and so Katusha decided to lend a hand to the BMC riders. Jhonatan Restrepo joined forces with Wyss and Schär as the gap was still 2.30 when they entered the final 20km.

 

Entering the final 15km, Schär, Wyss and Restrepo had shaved 50 seconds off the gap and the many small climbs were clearly taking their toll on the escapees. At the same time, they lost even more momentum when Direct Energie also added Antoine Duchesne to the chase work.

 

With 10km to go, the escapees were only 45 seconds ahead of the peloton and this forced King to ride full gas up the final small climb. This was too much for Barta who was dropped from the breakaway and even though he dug very deep to try to stay in contact, the elastic had snapped for good when he reached the top.

 

The climb had also ended the day for Restrepo and this meant that it was left to Schär, Wyss and Duchesne to try to bring the two leaders back. Direct Energie realized that they had to react and so they even used their GC rider Romain Sicard for the chase.

 

With 40km to go, the gap had even gone out to almost a minute and this prompted Katusha to hit the panic button. The Russian team put Restrepo and Marco Haller on the front and the pair took some huge turns with the two Direct Energie riders in a final desperate attempt to bring the leaders back.

 

King and Huffman still had a big advantage when they passed the flamme rouge and so the game of cat and mouse could start. King refused to come through for another turn and played it cool by staying on Huffman’s wheel.

 

The former Astana rider kept riding on the front until he launched his sprint and initially it looked like King would not come around. However, the Cannondale rider still had something left in the tank and so he managed to pass his rival just metres from the line. Eight seconds later Kristoff beat race leader Sagan and Niccolo Bonifazio (Trek) in the sprint for third.

 

The win also saw King move into the race lead and he now heads into tomorrow with an 8-second advantage over Huffman. However, it is very unlikely that he will defend his position tomorrow as stage 3 is the queen stage. After a lumpy start with two smaller climbs, the terrain is mostly flat with just a small category 3 climb along the way. However, the stage has a very nasty sting in its tail as it ends at the top of the HC climb of Gibraltar Road which averages 8% over 12km and offers the climbers their best chance to make a difference in the race.

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