Tour of California 3: Henderson brings Sky second victory

Leader's jersey passes from Swift to Henderson

Greg Henderson (Team Sky) sprinted to a win at the end of the Amgen Tour of California's 196.2km stage 3 from Auburn to Modesto on Tuesday. Juan José Haedo (Saxo Bank Sungard) finished second ahead of world champion Thor Hushovd (Team Garmin-Cervélo).

Team Sky lined up at the front of the race in the final kilometers with the goal of looking after overall race leader Ben Swift and setting up for the sprint finish. Swift's path was blocked near the line, but Henderson was in position to push for the win.

"We defended the jersey honourably," a surprised but pleased Henderson said following the win. "We put two guys up front to chase all day. We tried to set up the finish for Ben Swift, but there was a bit of a mix up with 1km to go and I didn't know about it. I opened up my sprint with 500m to go expecting him to come around - I'm just lucky enough to have had the legs to last to the line."

Several crashes marred the final kilometers, which were run on dry roads on a circuit through Modesto. At seven kilometers to go, the slick paint of a crosswalk took down Jens Voigt of Leopard-Trek and one of the favourites for the win today, Matt Goss (HTC-Highroad). Baden Cooke of Saxo Bank also went down in a crash just before the Red Kite. Michael Matthews fell too and continued Rabobank's run of bad luck at the Tour of California.

Henderson and Swift are tied on time, but Henderson takes over as race leader from his teammate. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) is in third overall.

"Now we can relax a bit that we're two for two," explained Henderson. "Tomorrow is a difficult day and I have no illusions of defending the jersey - there is no way I can climb with the likes of Levi Leipheimer and Dave Zabriskie.

"I'm really happy that our team has been able to dominate in the first two stages, and now we will switch our focus to helping Chris Froome who is our climber."

Jan Bárta of Team NetApp spent the day in the early breakaway and won two of the three intermediate sprints. On the third sprint in Oakdale, Bárta attacked and only Andy Jaques-Maynes of Team Bissell could follow. "The worst was the wind it took all my strength, the rain wasn't that cold, but it was always a headwind and that was tough," said Bárta of his long day out. "At the end everyone gets tired and can't really help, so it was a long stage. They didn't have enough strength anymore to stay away." Bárta made the most of his chances and won a $1000 prime at the first sprint in Folsom and a basket of local goodies from Oakdale.

How the race unfolded

The Amgen Tour of California returned to its regularly scheduled program today with this stage running through California's Central Valley from Auburn to Modesto. Starting slightly behind schedule, the bunch rolled out under unsettled skies. Intermittent rain and flag-straightening wind out of the south guaranteed a long day in the saddle despite the relatively flat course profile. The field faced a solid headwind for much of the day, though the final 50 kilometers included several sections where the course turned parallel to the wind and offered the opportunity for a strong team to put the race in the gutter.

The expected early breakaway quickly formed following the neutral circuit through the streets of Auburn. Local residents dressed in frontier-themed costumes waved the race on its way. Seven riders comprised the break: Christian Meier (UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling), Jan Bárta (Team NetApp), Andy Jacques-Maynes (Bissell Cycling), William Dickeson (Jelly Belly p/b Kenda), Phillip Gaimon (Kenda/5-hour Energy Pro Cycling presented by Geargrinder), James Driscoll (Jamis-Sutter Home), Mike Creed (Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth).

At the first Herbalife sprint line in Folsom, Bárta took the honors and the 3 second time bonus, followed by Gaimon and Andy Jacques-Maynes. After 60 kilometers of racing, the break held an advantage of 6:40, and for a time, the situation stabilized. A second Herbalife sprint line popped up in Ione, and Bárta again took the honors and picked up an additional 3 seconds. Christian Meier (UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling) took second for 2 seconds, and Jacques-Maynes crossed the line third. There remained 115.8 kilometers to race.

The gap between the leading seven riders and the field began to drop as Sky, Garmin-Cervélo, HTC-Highroad, and Team RadioShack began to work with more seriousness on the front. "It was a long day, because we had a headwind for the majority of the day. Big thanks to the guys who rode the front all day and helped chase down the breakaway. It's a lot of hard work for them," commented stage winner Greg Henderson after the stage. Team Sky had at least two riders on the front all day.

With 75 kilometers to race, the gap stood at 4:05, and soon a pair of crashes interrupted the smoothly unfolding stage. Matt Busche of Team RadioShack found landed in a roadside ditch, but was quickly back up and riding. Then Jesus Del Nero Montes of Team NetApp crossed wheels or slipped on the paint of the yellow centerline as the field crossed a concrete bridge. After the heavy crash, Del Nero proved slow to remount the bike, but soon began the slow trip back to the field.

Seven riders had ridden much of the day off the front, but just outside 73 kilometers to go, Gaimon slid off the back of the break. The Kenda/5-Hour Energy rider fought desperately to rejoin the front group, but inexorably, they rode away from him. The gap between the leading six and the field, meanwhile, continued to fall.

As the race crossed the county line into Stanislaus County, the road turned west and the riders at the front began to echelon. With the wind blowing across their left shoulders, the field spread across the road, offering a hint of possible chaos to come. The road soon straightened. Passing the Woodward Reservoir, rolling grain fields interspersed with orchards framed the road. A solitary horse pranced in the distance, and the combined efforts of Sky, HTC-Highroad, and Liquigas-Cannondale had brought the gap down to 2:45.

At the third intermediate sprint in Oakdale, Bartá attacked the break. Andy Jacques-Maynes proved quick to follow, and the two riders pushed on into the headwind together. The remaining four riders returned to the field. "I've had more fun days. It was a pretty tough day to be in the break. Christian [Meier] and Andy [Jacques-Maynes] were a bit stronger and we were pulling through as much as we could. It was a block headwind all day and you always know that the chances of staying away are pretty slim. I'll get into it tomorrow again and see what happens," said Will Dickenson (Jelly Belly p/b Kenda) of his long day out.

With 22 kilometers to go, the gap stood at 1:15 and the front of the bunch spread out from left to right across the road. Team Sky did the work on the front in support of Yellow Jersey Ben Swift. A few riders began to slide off the back under pressure from the increased pace and the wind. Only Bárta and Jacques-Maynes remained out in front, while behind them, Rabobank and BMC joined the chase. At the 20 kilometers to go mark, the two riders dangled just 30 seconds ahead.

Now the wind blew across the road and many riders began to drop off the back as a series of echelons formed. At 19 kilometers to go, just Bárta remained out in front, but not for long. Team Sky went to the front and smashed it, blowing the bunch to bits, at least temporarily. Thor Hushovd of Garmin-Cervélo was among the riders to miss the split. Andy Schleck of Leopard-Trek also missed the split.

As the road turned back into the headwind, the Hushovd-Schleck group proved able to rejoin the front group, but the hard riding must surely have left a mark. By 16 kilometers to go, the field had mostly reformed. Race leader Ben Swift remained safely tucked in behind his team-mates at the front of the field.

With 14 kilometers to go and the circuits rapidly approaching, HTC-Highroad and Liquigas-Cannondale came to the front in the hope of setting up their sprinters and preventing any cheeky last-minute attacks. With 8 kilometers to go, the bunch passed over the finish line for the first time.

Just two laps on the finishing circuit at Auburn remained. SpiderTech took over the front in the hope of setting up their sprinter Keven Lacombe, who finished fourth yesterday after a strong sprint. Not long after the field entered the finishing circuit, a crash took down Andreas Schillinger of Team NetApp and Jens Voigt of Leopard-Trek. Voigt soon remounted his bike and began the slow ride to the finish.

Chris Horner of RadioShack also suffered a misadventure in the finishing circuits. "It was squeezing in tight and [Peter] Sagan totally pushed me over. It was a stupid mistake and we almost crashed. It took the spokes out of my back wheel. It wouldn't rotate. I tried with Markel Irizar and Ben [King] waited for me and he took me to the front. The bike fit wasn't that great but we got the job done, it was fantastic and everyone worked great." Horner finished safely in the field and did not lose any time on the general classification.

Up front, SpiderTech meanwhile still rode hard on the front with Team Sky sitting just behind them. As the riders jostled for position, their wheels ricocheted off the bots dots on the the road. With 4.5 kilometers to go, Saxo Bank began moving up for Juan José and Sebastian Haedo. With 4 kilometers to go, Saxo Bank had four riders on the front, but Team Sky soon showed how they won yesterday's stage and began moving up on the right-hand side.

With 3 kilometers to go, Team Sky had the race mostly in hand. Hoping to set-up three-time World Champion Oscar Freire, Rabobank also lurked near the front, but did not provide any real challenge to Team Sky. Just outside the red kite, Team Sky still held their position on the front. "Everyone had relatively fresh legs because it was so easy in the peloton behind the guys pulling, so the last 10km was just chaotic. There was lots of fighting at the front and changes of direction. I can't thank Matt Hayman, Ian Stannard and Jeremy Hunt enough for keeping us out of trouble and getting us to the last corner," said Henderson later.

As the field passed under the 1 kilometer to go banner, Freire moved up the field, while current World Champion Thor Hushovd sat in second wheel behind Greg Henderson of Team Sky. As the sprint began, Freire went backwards nearly as quickly as Henderson hurtled forward.

The New Zealander started his sprint from the front, and Henderson never looked back. He won the stage with a bike length to spare. "I've never sprinted 500 meters to victory before. Normally sprinters do the last 150 or 200, but to win from there shows I'm in great condition," commented Henderson of his long sprint to the line. Hushovd tried to follow, but ultimately slipped back to third as Juan José Haedo came around on his right. Peter Sagan finished fourth with Leigh Howard of HTC-Highroad rounding out the top five.

In the general classification, Greg Henderson now leads his team-mate Ben Swift. Peter Sagan is third at four seconds, and fourth-placed rider Juan José Haedo is also at four seconds. The sprinters dominate the general classification for now, but tomorrow's stage finish on Sierra Road will certainly change all that.

This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.

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