Young Colombian cyclists are sometimes invited to ride for clubs whose coaches are called professors. The most skilled riders, particularly climbers, are all known as escarabajos, or beetles, a nickname of reverence in the country where the sport is serious business.
Like the hard-shelled insect, Egan Bernal is 130 pounds of tenacity and he can climb quickly. His skills took him to the overall victory Saturday in the Amgen Tour of California.
A native of Zipaquira, Colombia, where daily life and high altitude are synonymous, Bernal, 21, dominated the two mountain stages of the 645-mile, seven-day race and pedaled to a 1 minute, 25 second final margin. Tejay van Garderen (BMC), the 2013 race winner and a Washington native who primarily lives in Nice, France, was second. Daniel Martinez (EF Education First-Drapac) of Colombia was third overall, 2:14 behind.
“I’m so happy because it’s my first overall win in the WorldTour level, so today I feel great,” said Bernal, who rides for TeamSky, the British-based squad that now has 32 wins this season. Bernal finished 33rd in the main field in Stage 7, which started and finished in Sacramento.
“In Colombia, we have a lot of fans; the Colombian people really love the cyclists, so it’s good to be here and to win some stages with Fernando and then take the overall. I’m sure that the Colombian public are happy. I’m happiest for that because when we are in Colombia we feel bad, that for them it’s important to have good riders here and to win is good.”
Bernal’s compatriot, Fernando Gaviria, 23, who rides for the Belgian Team, Quick-Step, sprinted to his third stage win of the race and sixth this season, edging Maximilian Walscheid (Sunweb) of Germany and Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott) of Australia.
An early video replay of the finish appeared to show Walscheid as the stage winner, with the quick-closing rider raising his hand crossing the line. But Gaviria, who will ride in the Tour de France for the first time in July, claimed his 16th career win by a few centimeters after a last-moment lunge or “bike throw.”
Colombia riders captured five men's stages in the 13th annual event than began May 13 in Long Beach.
About an hour before the men finished, Katie Hall (UnitedHealthcare), 31, of Saratoga, avenged her one-second runner-up finish last year and won the three-day 187.7-mile women’s race by 29 seconds over Tayler Wiles (Trek-Drops). Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) of Poland was third overall, 1:07 behind.
Hall, who claimed Stage 2 in South Lake Tahoe, finished 20th in the main field of the 43.5-mile women’s circuit race finale in downtown Sacramento won in a field sprint by Cuban Arlenis Sierra (Astana).
“I’ve been with the team for five seasons,” said Hall, who won her fourth overall title this season. “I spent the previous years riding for the really good GC (overall title) riders and so now that it’s my turn, I can rely on that experience.”
Beyond the Colombian’s success, the race had several other oddities.
Peter Sagan, the sport’s No. 1-ranked rider and three-time consecutive world titlist from Slovakia, was winless. The leader of the German team Bora-Hansgrohe has 16 of his 104 career wins in the Tour of California and had at least one each year since he began competing in the event in 2010.
Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), has 10 Tour of California stage wins, including four in Sacramento, and 30 Tour de France stage wins, the most among active riders. Be he also didn’t win a Tour of California stage this year.
Local riders' title hopes dashed
Evan Huffman (Rally) of Sacramento and Neilson Powless (LottoNL-Jumbo) of Roseville were expected as overall titles contenders. But neither rider's week progressed as planned.
“It was a tough week and disappointing in some ways,” said Huffman, who earned two of his seven wins last season at the Tour of California. “But that’s the risk when you’ve done really well before, you can’t always come back and repeat.”
Huffman, who placed 67th overall in the field of 112, was part of sustained breakaways in two stages, but mechanical problems curtailed his efforts in the Stage 3 finish at Laguna Seca. He also faltered late in Stage 6 when the eventual race winner pedaled to nearly a 1 1/2-minute win.
“I have mixed feelings,” said Huffman, who finished second in the climbing competition. “I did the best I could. Yesterday (Stage 6) was a really, really hard stage. I tried to the get some mountain points, but it’s always coulda-woulda-shoulda. But at the end, Toms (Skujins) was stronger than me and he was a deserving winner.”
Powless, who finished ninth overall in the Tour of California two years ago at age 19, is riding in his first season on the WorldTour, cycling’s highest level.
“Unfortunately, I wasn't really where I needed to be to be competitive here,” said Powless, who finished 15th overall, trailing by 7:25. “I was just kind of lacking that last five percent or whatever in the upper-end.
“I did what I could – was able to turn out a pretty good time trial. But at the end of the day, I came here with overall hopes and that didn’t quite play out.”
Powless and three others rode in a break for much of the final stage, but the foursome was caught just before the start of the final of three circuits.
Powless and his older sister Shayna, a second-year rider with Twenty20, were scheduled as the first brother and sister to compete in the same edition of the race. But the elder Powless, who was on the team’s starting roster, was pulled before the race began via precautionary protocol. She suffered a concussion at a recent race in Redlands.