La crème rose to the top on Gibraltar Road, as Julian Alaphilippe of France made a late move to capture the Queen Stage of the Amgen Tour of California on Tuesday. The eight-stage tour is billed as America’s greatest cycling race, and American riders led Stage 3 much of the way until Alaphilippe shook off Peter Stetina in the final kilometer of the steep climb above the cloud-shrouded cityscape.
The previous three Amgen Tour stages to finish in Santa Barbara were won by U.S. riders, but this one had a finishing stretch to rank with Europe’s toughest mountain stages, and it came after almost 100 miles of hilly racing that began in Thousand Oaks. Hundreds of hometown enthusiasts lined Gibraltar Road after riding their own bicycles up to prime viewing spots. When the professionals arrived for the seven-mile final onslaught, it was Colorado native Gregory Daniel leading the way. But with a spectator dressed like the Pope running alongside him, he was swallowed up by the chasers.
Daniel’s teammate Neilson Powless – at 19 the youngest of the 144 riders – powered to the front and stayed there for several miles, but he did not have the strength to hold off the charge of Stetina, a 28-year-old Santa Rosa resident, and Australia’s Lachlan Morton. For a time, it looked like the race might be Stetina’s, after he dropped Morton, but then Alaphilippe, at 23 one of the sport’s rising stars, came on like gangbusters.
“Everybody [was] waiting the last climb for the big fight,” said Alaphilippe, riding for Belgium’s Etixx-Quick-Step team. “My feeling was okay. I was surprised to be with the last riders. I wait to the last moment. I catch him for the win.”
“I’m more of a steady climber,” Stetina said. “I don’t have a huge punch like Julian here.” But Stetina had to be pleased with his second-place finish, 15 seconds behind. His cycling future was in doubt 13 months ago when he crashed in Spain, leaving his right kneecap shattered and fibula broken. It was not until a month ago in the Ardennes classics that he felt he again belonged in the elite cycling fraternity.
The difficult stage punished two former Amgen Tour overall champions. Peter Sagan, who took advantage of the sprint stages to defeat Alaphilippe by three seconds last year, and Bradley Wiggins, who won the tour in 2014, both struggled up the mountain and finished 105th and 127th, respectively, almost 22 minutes in arrears. Alaphilippe took the leader’s yellow jersey from Ben King, the American who won Stage 2 in Santa Clarita on Monday but finished 5 ½ minutes back Tuesday.
There would be opportunities for them to close the gap in the remaining five stages. “You’ve gotta be switched on every day from here on out,” Stetina said. “The first two days were kind of the appetizer, and tomorrow [up the coast from Morro Bay to Monterey] is ridiculously tricky, followed by Tahoe, followed by the time trial. This race is far from over.”