Stage two should have been fairly straightforward. The 145km route from Modesto to San Jose involved an easy 22km westward roll through the central valley, followed by five categorized climbs, including the Hors Categorie eastern slope of Mt. Hamilton, the highest peak in the Bay Area. After the long descent, it’s all curves and rollers until the race finally finishes at the top of Metcalfe Road, a picturesque rural thoroughfare that has become a staple of the race over the years.
Rally’s strategy was simple: put young climber Sepp Kuss in the early break, allowing him opportunities to fight for KOM points and hopefully position him to help GC hopefuls Rob Britton and Evan Huffman later in the stage. Let the World Tour teams do the work and when the big names turn the screws, Britton and Huffman stay with them, finishing with the front group and placing them high in the overall. Simple stuff.
An undulating road, Highway 99 dips and rises to accommodate the train tracks moving produce from California’s Central Valley to less agriculturally gifted areas of the US. Off the highway, roads make turns at abrupt right angles to navigate around farm boundaries. Vast patches of the squarest squares vary from fallow, ashen dust to lush orchards of almond trees or other established crops. Modesto is at the center of California agriculture, and it’s buildings hint at the past prominence of the town, while also reflecting a current vibrancy and optimistic outlook.
The easy gallop through the central valley was miserably hard. Full-gas and lined out from the start, the peloton pushed hard against the headwind for 20km as the early break failed to materialize. In a frenzied touch of wheels Rally’s Eric Young went down, but it was tough to tell because race radio sounded like it was being broadcast from a different country – like maybe the northern reaches of the Yukon Territory. Or Texas.
Crackle Crackle … Rally rider … crackle fuzzzz crackle … right side … bike … crackle …
The crew in Rally’s lead car exchanged Eric’s bike and got him rolling again, and the sprinter’s all-out chase through the caravan earned him the reward of catching on just as the group began their spirited ascent up Del Puerto Canyon. Six strong climbers eventually distanced themselves from the peloton as they neared the first KOM, and Kuss was not among them.
“C’mon guys,” said Rally Director Pat McCarty over the radio. “That group is gaining time. We should be up there.”
It wasn’t going to happen. All anyone could do was listen intently to race radio as other riders snatched up valuable KOM points. The real climbing had begun, and the first Rally casualty was Young, the big sprinter unceremoniously dispatched from the main group after burning too many matches early on. Danny Pate and Colin Joyce were the next to lose contact. Apparently, Colin had made a huge effort to bridge up to the lead group only to get caught in No Man’s Land just short of the catch. It only got worse from there...
The climb up Hamilton’s east side is as steep as it is endless, and the whole race exploded on its upper flanks. From the rear of the caravan it was tough to tell what was going on at the front of the race, but it never sounded good, especially once the descent began.
The scene at the team bus after the stage didn't have much of that "party atmosphere" vibe we expect from the Tour of Cali. The team’s GC hopefuls had lost valuable time, riders had been injured, equipment had been broken. A day that had started with so much promise had turned into an unexpected nightmare. It will be hard for the team to bounce back from this one. But, tenacity has been a hallmark of this team from the very beginning, and if anyone can recover from this sort of day, it’s the Rally Cycling riders.