SANTA BARBARA, (AP) — Julian Alaphilippe no doubt remembered how close he was to winning the Tour of California a year ago.
The 23-year-old French cyclist attacked inside the final mile of the grueling climb up Gibraltar Road on Tuesday, then powered all the way across the finish line — rather than sitting up to soak in the victory — to win Stage 3 of this year’s edition and assume the overall race lead.
Alaphilippe led the Tour of California after his victory on Mount Baldy on the penultimate day last year, but watched Peter Sagan beat him by a mere 3 seconds thanks to sprint bonuses on the final day.
He wasn’t going to squander even a second with a premature celebration Tuesday.
The victory was also gratifying for Alaphilippe, who had a breakout start to last season, after the way his year had finished. The young French hope for future Grand Tours came down with mononucleosis, and nobody was quite sure what his fitness would be like when he began racing this season.
He showed his form — and some veteran patience — in the final miles, when he quickly bridged a 24-second gap to Peter Stetina in one big push. The two jockeyed for position for a moment before Alaphilippe rode away from his American rival, who managed to regroup and cross the finish in second.
It was an impressive performance for Stetina, too. The rider from Trek-Segafredo broke his kneecap and several other bones in a career-threatening crash in April 2015 at the Tour of the Basque Country.
Fans and riders alike had asked for the iconic Gibraltar Road climb near Santa Barbara to be included in the race for more than a decade, but road conditions had always prevented it. It was only this year that race organizers were finally able to include one of the toughest climbs in North American cycling.
To nobody’s surprise, it began to separate the contenders from the rest of the field.
Stetina will be 19 seconds adrift when Stage 4 begins on Thursday. George Bennett is 31 seconds back in third, followed by Brent Bookwalter and 19-year-old Neilson Powless.
The biggest feature of Stage 4, a lumpy 134-mile ride from Morro Bay, is the race’s first foray north on the Pacific Coast Highway. The stage concludes at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca near Monterey.