Most teams go into the final stage of Redlands with the assumption that anything can happen; that the entire race can change in one stage. This year was no exception.
The remarkably difficult nature of the course and its parcours presents it as perfect hail-mary launching grounds for opportunists looking to get away for their last chance at a stage win in the race, or for GC prospects to move up any and all spots they can.
For the men, the day starts with 2 laps of a shortened version of the crit course completed the night before. At the end of the 2 laps are sprint points up for grabs for contenders of the green points jersey, so how fast those laps are ridden is often dictated by how close the competition is. If the jersey has already been sealed, those intro laps can be perfunctory, but if the margin between 1st and 2nd place is slim, those 2 laps can be blistering.
The jersey was close going into the crit, so the sprint was hotly contested. The speed from the laps of the crit course carried over as the peloton exited downtown and made their way to the infamous Sunset loop, a technical circuit of hilly neighborhood roads just outside of the downtown.
On the loop, riders are either going up or going down, and straight sections of road are virtually non-existent. Everything winds, which means that positioning into climbs is crucial from the first to last lap.
The team’s goal was to shelter Sam as much as possible and position him towards the front going into the first run through Sunset. The way out of downtown to the circuits is itself a long climb, so once riders leave the crit course, they are climbing for the next 30 minutes before their first descent. Getting caught out of position going through the climb means riders are subject to the “rubber-band” effect, where the peloton compresses going into a 100-degree turn to the climb. The front is able to flow through smoothly, but everyone at the back must brake and subsequently sprint hard to maintain position.
The team flowed with Sam the first few laps of the course, with the peloton once again leaving pacemaking duties to the leader and his Hagens Berman Axeon riders. The team would ride for the next 6 laps covering moves off the front to sew the peloton together so Sam wouldn’t have to accelerate any more than necessary.
In the 6th lap, Cory Lockwood, who sat in 4th place in the overall General Classification, just 1:08 down from the leader, took a flyer and went up the road with points jersey-leader, Quinn Simmons, glued on his wheel.
Hagens Berman Axeon would rightfully take up the reigns to start doing damage control to make sure Cory and Quinn didn’t get too far up the road to jeopardize Kevin Vermaerke’s lead, but in the 7th lap, disaster struck. A horrendous crash on the steepest and roughest section of the descent took out all but one rider on Hagens Berman Axeon. The disruption and subsequent lack of coordination in a chase effort would give Cory and Quinn the final leg up to secure their escape.
Back in the peloton, after the pack had collected itself, Sam was waiting for the right attack to follow. At that point, the group was about 40 riders, a group too large to go into the circuits with if there was a chance to contest a podium spot.
Finally, in the last lap, Alexander Cowan of Floyd’s Pro Cycling launched over the crest of the climb going into the descent with Ben Schmutte of First Internet Bank Cycling right behind him. Sam made the dig to latch onto the duo and the three of them would make it to the circuits with about a 20-second lead on the pack. Cory and Quinn would lap them, having amassed enough of a gap to have already completed a lap of the crit course by the time the trio got back down into downtown. After the lead two finished their race, Cowan, Schmutte, and Sam would still have one lap left to go. Sam would try and attack to get a gap going into turn number-3 on the crit course, but would be reeled in, eventually finishing second in the sprint out of the group, fourth on the day, with the gap between him and the rest of the peloton enough to move up to 7th in the overall final general classification.