Liquigas-Cannondale's Peter Sagan has claimed his fifth win of the season, winning the Amgen Tour of California's fifth stage between Seaside and Paso Robles in a fast and furious dash to the line. The result didn't have a bearing on the top of the general classification, with Chris Horner again wearing the leader's jersey heading into tomorrow's stage six time trial.
Sagan, wearing the Tour's green jersey for leading the points competition, managed a slight edge on Australian young-gun Leigh Howard (HTC-Highroad) and Sky's Ben Swift. The challengers pushed down the Slovakian's left and right sides – the win was a narrow one but Sagan's wheel hit the finish line first.
"I'd like to thank my teammates, without their work, this win wouldn't have been possible," he said following his win "I'd like to thank Cannondale because the race is so important to them - I'm very happy for them."
Sagan commented that the he was relieved to see that two of his major challengers in the sprint, HTC'S Matt Goss who was suffering with cramp, and Garmin-Cervelo's Thor Hushovd who retired earlier due to fatigue, were not there when it came to the dash to the line.
Asked where today's win stood alongside his win at last year's sixth stage at Big Bear Lake where he sprinted away uphill from Rory Sutherland and Michael Rogers, Sagan still held fond memories of his win as a neo-pro.
"I rate my victory at Big Bear [last year] higher because it was so hard, but with this being so tough and long it's satisfying as well."
Meantime, with his current return to form after a run of crashed and injury in recent months Sagan is hopeful that we're yet to see him at his peak.
"I hope that I'm not actually in shape right now because my main objective is further ahead at the Tour of Switzerland, but I hope this form continues through the end of the season," he admitted.
The final kilometres of the Tour's longest stage were highlighted by a spirited attack from Bissell's Jeremy Vennell and constant counter-attacks from Liquigas-Cannondale and HTC-Highroad which was enough to split the bunch approaching the stage finish.
Team Sky hit the front as Vennell came back, with Mathew Hayman and stage 3 winner Greg Henderson leading out Ben Swift, but it was HTC-Highroad's Leigh Howard who opened up the sprint first, admittedly a bit too early and he was passed by the surging Slovak.
"It was a really good opportunity for me today," Howard told Cyclingnews. "I've been sprinting for Matt Goss all week, and he didn't quite have the legs today, and when opportunity like that comes up you have to take full advantage. I had the opportunity and I just missed. But at the same time it makes me more hungry - on Sunday I know how hard the course is, and I showed today I have the form. Hopefully we can pull off the win for the team."
Swift said he found himself in the wrong position heading into the sprint, behind the Liquigas lead-outs. "Unfortunately I had to get around Oss's lead-out man before I could contest for the sprint. It was a good race, and a fantastic lead-out by Hayman and Henderson, and it was unfortunate I couldn't pull it off."
Swift echoed comments that came from just about every rider on how hard the stage truly was. "It was harder than yesterday because it was just about the GC guys yesterday and the rest of us sprinters just tried to take it as easy as possible. Today you're trying to get to the finish, which makes it really hard."
Tour's longest stage fast and furious
The fifth stage of the Amgen Tour of California, originally planned to run along the scenic Pacific Coast Highway, was re-routed not because of current bad weather like the first two stages of the race, but because late winter storms made the road impassable for the race. The weather over the race finally turned the corner on stage five, offering up classic sunny skies and pleasant temperatures instead of the snow, cold, drizzle and wind which plagued the early stages.
The Tour's longest stage, from Seaside to Paso Robles, 217.4km in length, offered up three classified climbs in the first 50km - a feature that played into making the start of the race extremely aggressive as domestic teams and those down on the overall standings hoped for a day to shine.
It was a stage for race leader Chris Horner of RadioShack to sit behind his team and stay safe, allowing the opportunists and sprinters a chance to fight for the stage glory.
Mountains jersey war lights up stage
The teams looking to battle for the mountains classification put riders into the move today. Spidertech C10, with current leader Pat McCarty and Kelly Benefits Strategies/OptumHealth with Jesse Anthony, engaged in a battle royale after bridging up to a break containing Oscar Freire (Rabobank), Chris Froome (Sky), Dan Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) and Chris Baldwin (Bissell).
Also along for the ride were Maarten Tjallingii (Rabobank), Martin Velits (HTC-Highroad), Jeffry Louder (BMC Racing Team), Stefan Denifl (Leopard Trek) and Bradley White (UnitedHealthcare), making an 11-man move that gained a maximum of just over three minutes.
It was a day where getting into the break took a great amount of effort, and the battle for the king of the mountains jersey only heated up the first hour of racing.
"It was very fast from the start," said mountains leader McCarty. "I was a way back and didn't get any points on the first climb. Then Tuft got me across to the break when it was at 45 seconds, which was perfect timing."
Anthony, who came into the stage three points behind knew he had to follow him across. "McCarty got launched from one of his teammates and I knew I had to go. I wasn't feeling great at the time, but I knew I had to go and I ended up making it."
The pair fought fought the three remaining mountain sprints, with McCarty taking the first and Anthony the second, bringing the battle to the final climb with 33km to go. McCarty attacked to gain the maximum points, leaving Anthony with the daunting task of chasing the jersey on the Mt. Baldy stage.
"Pat's a classy rider. It was fun going head to head with him. I was just glad to make the break today and give it a try. We've got to fight to the bitter end, but it's going to be hard."
Losing break companion ends Freire's hopes
After the top of the final climb Denifl attacked, drawing out Freire as the RadioShack-led peloton held the gap just over two minutes. Anthony wasn't able to make the junction and was left behind with the rest of the breakaway.
Meanwhile, the life span of the lead group was being limited by RadioShack and Liquigas, who pulled steadily to reel in the attackers. Freire was looking to gain a stage victory for Rabobank, who was sponsoring the stage and had hundreds of representatives from the company on site to cheer for the team.
He and Denifl held a slim 25 second advantage heading into the final 20km over the rest of the break, while the peloton hovered two minutes behind. A crash by Denifl left Freire to make the dash for home on his own at around 16km to go.
The remnants of the break were caught with around 10km remaining, with RadioShack and Liquigas-Cannondale sharing duties to drive the front of the bunch.
With 7.4km remaining, the peloton had worked to bring the gap down from the magic minute as HTC-Highroad took their turn on the front. The pressure from within on the long stage resulted in Brent Brookwalter, Jeff Louder and Andy Jacques-Maynes clashing wheels and hitting the deck with minor road rash being the trio's only concern.
"In the last kilometers we thought the group would break up more than it did," Sagan admitted. "In the end it was still a good size group, and there was some confusion with the number of sprinters still in the race. Fortunately I was a little less tired than the other sprinters in the group."
Sagan also praised the efforts of his team for doing the hard yards so he could be in contention, following the day's long breakaway.
"When Oscar was off on the break, it was really Liquigas, RadioShack and then HTC doing the lion's share of the work."
Freire's best efforts were in vain, with the high pace of the HTC-Highroad train, splitting the peloton swamping the Spaniard with around 2.5km to go.
"The biggest burden in the last part - with two riders it would have been easier to stay away. In the last climb I lost almost 40 seconds, if we were together there was a good chance to stay away.
"In the break there were a few riders higher up in the classement so the peloton was always controlling the gap. I knew there wasn't a good chance to arrive, but when you're in the break you have to try. I almost won, but the last 3km I saw the peloton and they were stronger."
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.