Analysis, insight and data
John Steinbeck’s American classic Of Mice and Men tells the story of how the ambitions of two Californian itinerants are derailed by a poor decision that quickly spirals out of control. Andrew Talansky of Cannondale-Drapac and Brent Bookwalter of BMC may not have been thinking about Steinbeck’s depression-era novel while their 2017 Tour of California GC hopes disappeared up the road during stage 2, but the duo’s decision not to join eventual overall winner George Bennett of LottoNL-Jumbo in a move with Bora-Hansgrohe’s Rafa¯ Majka, Sky’s Ian Boswell and Lachlan Morton of Dimension Data sealed their fate just as surely as the decisions by Steinbeck’s characters George and Lennie led their own plans astray. The route for this year’s inaugural World-Tour edition of the race looked straightforward. The sprinters would have their days on stages 1, 3 and 7, while the opportunists could try their luck in breaks on stages 2 and 4. The GC men would be left to fight it out on the slopes of Mt. Baldy on stage 5 and along the shores of Big Bear Lake during the stage 6 time trial.
Things were going to plan after Quick-Step Floors led out Marcel Kittel to an impressive win at the end of stage 1 in Sacramento. In the early going of stage 2, Cannondale’s Toms Skuji !š infiltrated the breakaway and then soloed on after Mt. Hamilton, the hors-categorie climb that topped out about 50km from the finish. Skuji !š was familiar with the route after having won on an almost carbon copy of the stage in 2015 using a similar tactic.
That’s when things began deviating from the script. Behind Skuji !š, LottoNL-Jumbo were busy executing a plan they’d hatched weeks before. Bennett and Robert Gesink, the 2012
On the lower slopes of Baldy, Bennett, Boswell, Morton and Talansky started attacking each other
California winner, sent their team of young climbers to the front at the bottom of Mt. Hamilton. About two kilometres from the top, Bennett launched his attack. Majka latched on to the move, followed by Morton and Boswell. Talansky marked them briefly, then faded back.
“I saw somebody from Cannondale cover the move,” Morton’s team-mate Ben King said later. “I’m not sure if it was Talansky or who it was. To me it looked like Talansky, but I guess in the end he didn’t have the legs to follow.”
The four riders up front sensed their advantage and began cooperating. Meanwhile, Cannondale was chasing down a GC group that in turn was chasing down their leader on the road, Skuji !š. As Bennett would say later, LottoNL-Jumbo had executed their plan perfectly.
“It was good team tactics,” Gesink said, adding a bit more detail. “The boys did a good job pulling, and then George attacked. I think the strongest four went on Hamilton. Talansky didn’t react or couldn’t react. I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter.”
The group eventually caught and passed Skuji !š, who crashed dramatically, while Majka was able to slam the door shut on Bennett as they sprinted for the finish line. Boswell came in third and Morton fourth. Gesink led home the reduced peloton, which included Talansky and Bookwalter, 37 seconds later, and the general classification battle was set. Stage 3 played out as predicted, with Peter Sagan taking a technical uphill sprint in Morro Bay, while Evan Huffman won stage 4 from a break.
The GC hostilities resumed the next day on the lower slopes of Baldy, where Bennett, Boswell, Bookwalter, Morton and Talansky started attacking each other and especially leader Majka. In the end, Talansky settled for a stage win, saving his effort until the final two switchbacks before striking for the line just ahead of Majka. Bennett came in two seconds later for third. Boswell was fourth, five seconds back, while Morton was 27 seconds in arrears. Talansky had his revenge for missing the move on stage 2.
“I think today showed it wasn’t because of the legs,” Talansky said when asked about missing the crucial move earlier in the week. “I made a tactical decision, and I told my team afterwards it was the wrong one, obviously. That’s bike racing. These guys rolled the dice, laid it out there and came away with the time.”
That time proved to be the deciding factor in the overall race. Heading into the flat, 24km stage 6 time trial, Majka led the GC by six seconds over Bennett, 25 over Boswell, 44 over Talansky, 49 over Morton and 1:02 over Bookwalter.
Majka watched the lead slip away as he finished 59 seconds behind winner Jon Dibben of Team Sky, while Bennett put in the ride of his life to finish fourth, just 18 seconds off the winner’s time and good enough to take the race lead by 35 seconds over Majka. Talansky was third on the day and finished third overall, 36 seconds off Bennett’s time, just one second fewer than the 37 seconds he lost to the LottoNL rider on the fateful second stage. Bookwalter finished second on the stage and climbed to fourth overall, 45 seconds back.
George Bennett laid the foundation for his California GC win in the stage 2 escape with Rafa ¯ Majka