In a finale even more thrilling than had been anticipated, Rabobank’s Robert Gesink took the stage win and the race leader’s yellow jersey on the Queen stage of the 2012 Tour of California, the Hors Categorie climb up Mount Baldy.
The Rabobank rider attacked in the final five kilometers, when the road tilted up to a leg-breaking 17 percent grade, and kicked repeatedly to drop his pursuers and overtake the few riders ahead of him, including second-place finisher Jhon Atapuma of Colombia-Coldesportes and defending champion Chris Horner of RadioShack-Nissan.
For Gesink, the win cemented a change in fortune. The Dutch rider’s father was killed in a mountain bike race in 2011, which left Gesink emotionally dead, he said. Gesink then broke his leg in a crash in September.
His recovery started with the birth of his daughter Anna in December, and was reinforced by taking the yellow jersey in the Tour of California.
Horner’s Bold Title Defense
While Gesink’s late attack was spectacular, RadioShack’s Chris Horner provided much of the excitement for the first two thirds of the race.
The 2011 winner sent joined a huge break half-an-hour into the stage. Started by teammate Jens Voigt in the first few kilometers, the break swelled to 15 riders— Christopher Horner, George Bennett, Grégory Rast, and Jens Voigt of RadioShack, Timothy Duggan, Maxime Bouet, and Mickaël Chérel, of Liquigas-Cannondale, Marc de Maar and Bradley White of United Healthcare, Darwin Atapuma of Colombia-ColdePortes, Alexandre Geniez of Agros-Shimano, Lucas Euser of Spidertech, Christopher Baldwin of Bissell, and Nathan Brown of Bontrager-Livestrong, though Brown dropped back after just a few minutes.
This break pulled strongly until 40 km from the finish, when it started shedding riders. Lucas euswer, Jens Voigt, Chris Baldwin—one by one the breakaway riders slipped back, until only four were left: Chris Horner, Tim Duggan, Jhon Atapuma, and Marc de Maar.
Horner had seemingly lost his chance for a repeat win with his sub-par performance in the time trial, which led him 2:50 down in the General Classification. Instead of accepting his fate, the RadioShack rider gambled everything: he attacked the break with 40 km left in the stage.
Horner took off on his own and stretched the gap to 3:25 within a few kilometers, giving him the virtual lead on the road.
Colombia-Coldesportes’s Jhon Atapuma caught the RadioShack rider at the 35-km mark, and the pair pressed on together, opening the gap to 3:50 31 km from the finish line; unfortunately for Horner’s hopes, the gap started shrinking after that.
BMC started raising the pace of the peloton in the final 30 km, hoping to set up Teejay Van Garderen. The team pulled the chase until the leaders hit the bottom of the final hors categorie climb up Mount Baldy. This climb started about eight kilometers from the finish, but the first three kilometers were not that steep—the hard part was yet to come.
BMC had two riders on the front ahead of Van Garderen when the chase group hit the climb. They attacked, but couldn’t sustain it. Garmin’s Dave Zabriskie, in the yellow jersey, moved to the front, but Rabobank pushed him aside, sending Luis Leon Sanchez and Wilco Kelderman to the head.
Sanchez and Kelderman pulled Robert Gesink up the hill, with Zabriskie fourth wheel.
As the peloton powered up the first few kilometers of the final climb only 14 riders remained: the three Rabobank riders and Zabriskie, BMC’s Teejay Van Garderen, Matthew Busche and Tiago Machado (RadioShack-Nissan,) Tom Danielson (Garmin-Barracuda,) Joe Dombrowski (Bontrager-Livestrong,) Tejay Cameron Meyer and Pieter Weening (Orica GreenEdge,) Nicolas Roche (Ag2R) Fabio Duarte (Colombia-Coldeportes,) Jacques-Maynes (Bissell Cycling) and amazingly Levi Leipheimer of Omega Pharma-Quickstep, riding among the leaders only six weeks after breaking his leg in a training accident.
Next: Last Attacks