HTC-Highroad's Matthew Goss claimed the team's first Amgen Tour of California stage, besting points leader Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) at the line with Greg Henderson (Sky) in third.
"It's a great way to finish off the week, Tejay finished as best young rider, and now we've capped off the week in perfect fashion," Goss said on the podium.
The team's directeur Allan Peiper had told Cyclingnews yesterday that Howard would be the protected sprinter for the final stage, but Goss indicated that Peiper might have been throwing the other teams off the scent.
"The plan was at the start of today to do the sprint for me, the goal was to get a stage win and we achieved that goal. The guys worked perfectly to control race from early on and then Leigh did a great job and dropped me off with 150m to go. I couldn't have asked for a better leadout."
The bunch sprint stage gave no challenge to the yellow jersey of RadioShack's Chris Horner, who sealed his first Amgen Tour of California overall victory ahead of teammate Levi Leipheimer, with Garmin-Cervélo's Tom Danielson taking third.
Horner soaked in his final day of glory in the Golden State, which provided him with a step back in time. "Today was special, and I really grew up doing the training rides around here in the Simi Valley. One of my old directors John Wordin is here. I just really felt at home - I built my career here on these roads, as far back as the early 1990s."
Horner maintained his 38 second lead over his teammate Leipheimer and 2:45 over Danielson on the final stage.
"It was fast," said Leipheimer about the stage. "It went smoothly. Markel and Jason did most of the work, but with HTC and Liquigas wanting a field sprint we had a lot of help out there. We're just happy to have it over with and take home the victory."
A three-time winner of the Amgen Tour and a California resident, Leipheimer called having his teammate bring home the golden jersey "bittersweet".
"If you win three times and you then don't win when everyone's expecting you to... But I've won a stage and to have the team take home the victory is satisfying. Chris was the stronger rider and he deserves it."
Danielson said it was "an honor standing on the podium with Chris and Levi. I started my career with Chris on Saturn and joined Discovery Channel with Levi. I wouldn't be half the rider I was without these guys. I wasn't as good as them in this race, but enjoyed racing for third and being able to celebrate it up there with these guys."
Tejay Van Garderen secured the title of best young rider, while Pat McCarty (Spidertech) sealed his king of the mountains win on the previous stage.
Sagan's second place was enough to seal the points classification win, adding to the success for Liquigas-Cannondale after his stage win in Paso Robles.
"I'm very happy to have been able to come and do this race again," said Sagan. "With the stage win and the green jersey I'm very satisfied."
How it unfolded
The Amgen Tour of California rode into the home of its title sponsor, Thousand Oaks, for the second year in a row. However, instead of using the hilly, torturous circuit of 2010, the course was instead a sprinter-friendly 132.4km course from Santa Clarita, with five fast-paced circuits around the town.
The domestic teams fought for television time early in the stage, with attacks flying to make the breakaway beginning straight from the gun. It wasn't until 30km in that a four-man move was finally established.
Our lucky quartet was Bradley White (UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling), Jan Barta (Team NetApp), Jose Fernando Antogna (Jamis-Sutter Home) and Michael Friedman (Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth), the latter of which had been complaining of leg issues at the start, but battled through it in order to contribute to the move.
The work was all in vain, as the sprinters' teams set a brisk pace to peg the leaders at a three-minute advantage. As the leaders entered the first of five 7.9km closing circuits, the gap was holding at 2:35 but would fall fast.
With four to go, the gap had been diminished to 1:30 and, sensing the rapidly approaching catch, two riders rocketed out of the peloton with 30km to go in hopes of foiling the sprinters.
Maarten Tjallingii (Rabobank) and Martin Mortensen (Leopard Trek) had to work for nearly 12km before reaching the now-diminished breakaway. White had already gone out, and soon Antogna and Friedman would also throw in the towel.
With two laps to go, the trio had a 30 second lead, but Barta was beginning to struggle. With one lap to go, all three had conceded defeat to the vicious pace being set by HTC-Highroad, and the break was no more with 5km to go.
Barta was awarded the most courageous rider jersey for his efforts.
"When those two riders came across, that was kind of lucky," said Barta. "With those two guys in the break, I kind of thought we had a chance to go to the line. But the pace was very fast today, and it made the race very hard for us."
Saxo Bank took over, hoping to set up JJ Haedo for his first Tour of California stage of the year, while Sky came up the outside to try and get Swift another win.
Eisel took to the front with 2km to go but lost control in a wide left bend, leading Sky to take the front inside the final kilometre, battling with the Liquigas train on the push to the line.
But it was Howard who pushed ahead of the Sky and Liquigas trains, pulling Matthew Goss free to power to the team's first stage win of the race.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.