Team Sky's Ben Swift lived up to his surname by blasting to victory in the sprint on a shortened stage 2 of the Amgen Tour of California, topping Peter Sagan of Liquigas-Cannondale and HTC-Highroad's Matthew Goss.
Swift's team was in firm control of the race on the final of three finishing circuits in Sacramento, and Swift nailed the sprint. "The team was absolutely unreal - it was fantastic. 100% thank you to the team," said Swift after the win, noting that he, rather than Paris-Nice stage winner Greg Henderson was the protected man for the sprint.
"Hendy hasn't raced since Scheldeprijs, and I've come off two wins in a month, so it was awesome."
The Sky rider had time to enjoy the win, but did not want to celebrate too soon. "You could feel that no one was around, but you got to go through the line before you put your hands up," commented Swift.
It's the fifth win of the season for the rider from Rotherham, after two stages of the Tour Down Under, one in Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, and a win in Tour de Romandie stage 5 earlier this month.
Goss was one of the favourites for the day, and while the timing of the sprint wasn't perfect, he was optimistic with his form. "I would have liked to have won, but after five weeks of racing and the first day back, I'm happy with the way I'm feeling," said Goss.
The Australian expects to find more sprint speed in the coming days. "Now after opening up a bit, I think I'll feel better in the next days."
HTC-Highroad directeur sportif Rolf Aldag added, "[Sky] really deserved the win. We just couldn't get it together that well." The trio of Bernhard Eisel, Leigh Howard, and Matt Goss have not raced together for a few weeks. "Howard moved to the right and Gossy decided to move left," explained Aldag. "Now they need to find the right rhythm and right set up."
Thanks to his stage victory, Ben Swift will wear the first Yellow Jersey of this year's Amgen Tour of California. Swift earned a time bonus for his victory, and now sits four seconds ahead of Sagan and six seconds ahead of Goss.
Swift also holds the lead in the points classification, while Sagan will wear the best young rider's jersey. Up and coming American Taylor Phinney of BMC Racing Team now sits second in the young rider's classification, after his eighth place finish in the sprint.
James Driscoll of Jamis-Sutter Home, who spend much of the day out in the breakaway, won the Breakaway From Cancer Most Courageous Rider award. Driscoll, who is set to graduate from the University of Vermont with a degree in Mechanical Engineering said, "I'd rather have the jersey I got than a cap and gown."
He was not surprised to be caught short of the finish. "It was a pretty classic formulaic sprinter stage, so I knew the sprinters teams would chase us down. But it is good to ride aggressive and represent my sponsors."
Bissell's Ben Jacques-Maynes was disappointed to not be awarded most courageous after first bridging to the breakaway and then attacking so he was last man caught, but unbeknownst to him the jury had voted some 20km earlier.
"It was as long as you could get for a 75-mile day. I thought that the jersey would be up for grabs and that is why I attacked at the very end. I felt great out there and it felt good to finally be racing. It was a short day and it was time to work hard."
Snow re-routes start Nevada City
The race set out from Nevada City after snowy conditions in the original start town of Squaw Valley forced the organizers to revise the course for the second day in a row. The new stage ran 113 kilometers instead of the planned 214.4 and included an additional two laps on the finishing circuit. The revised course also removed the intermediate sprints and their time bonuses as well as the King of the Mountains line at Donner Pass. Only the stage finish carried points and time bonuses, and the stage victory held the additional caché of earning the first Yellow Jersey of the 2011 Amgen Tour of California.
With so many fresh legs in the field after Sunday's cancelled stage, the racing began aggressively. Though most riders expected the race to end in a sprint, many teams still wanted to show their sponsor's colors in the break. Sebastian Alexandre, the team manager of Jamis-Sutter Home said before the start: "It is also important for our sponsors and our team to race well, and to try to put on a good show. We will try to do that every day this week."
The team's Jamey Driscoll helped establish an early break of three along with Laszlo Bodrogi (Team Type 1-Sanofi Aventis) and Timon Seubert (Team NetApp), and once they were joined by Ben Jacques-Maynes (Team Bissell) the foursome quickly established itself as the move of the day.
As the race began the long descent down the Sierra Nevada foothills, the break steadily built up its advantage. With just over 70 kilometers to go, the gap stood at five minutes. Sergio Hernandez (Jelly Belly p/b Kenda) tried to make it across to the break, but never quite made the junction. The leading four, which included a four-time Hungarian National Time Trial Champion in Bodrogi and a former team pursuiter in Seubert, rotated smoothly with all four contributing to the effort.
As the kilometers ticked down, the bunch steadily whittled away the foursome's advantage. Just inside 50 kilometers to go, the gap had fallen to 3:30. The sprinters' teams collaborated smoothly on the front with no one team doing all the work, and the headwind complicated the efforts of the breakaway to hold their advantage.
Four riders against the combined strength of Team Sky Rabobank, Liquigas-Cannondale, and HTC-Highroad stood little chance. The race hit the wide roads of the suburban outskirts of California's capital city, and the gap fell precipitously, hitting the magic minute at 20.5 kilometers to go.
Rain falls on closing circuits, riders take it safe
With the entrance to the final circuits in sight, the field had nearly absorbed the break. Ben Jacques-Maynes made a late dash for freedom and tried desperately to hold off the charging bunch. It was a brave move with little hope for success. With 13 kilometers to race, it was all back together, and the teams began to position for the sprint.
On the opening lap, Saxo Bank went to the front early for their sprinters Juan José and Sebastian Haedo. Garmin-Cervélo also came to the front in the hope of setting up World Champion Thor Hushovd for a sprint victory. Their efforts came to nothing as Team Sky asserted their authority.
Their efforts came to nothing as Team Sky asserted their authority. With two laps to go, rain began to fall on portions of the circuit which made for difficult cornering.
"We had a plan to hit the front with one lap to go," said stage winner and race leader Ben Swift. "They played into our hands a little bit, they went to the front a little too early," said the Sky rider of his rival teams' tactics.
Coming into the last lap it was the Spidertech C10 team at the front trying to set up Keven Lacombe, and the French Canadian opened up the sprint only to be pushed to fourth by the rush of Swift, Sagan and Goss.
"We tried to control the front because that is so much easier," said Lacombe". With the rain and all the corners it was really dangerous. I think it really helped me to be fresh for the end. Actually it's a team effort, and at the end I tried to do my best, but the last 50m I got passed by three guys. We still have a lot of stages to do, so we will try to do the same and maybe it will work."
Sky's Alex Dowsett was pleased at how the team timed its final push to deliver its man to the win. "We had a plan to take it on just inside the last lap and that's exactly what happened. It all went perfectly to be honest, I was glad Swifty could pull off the win."
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.