Evan Huffman hopped off his bicycle and sprawled across a patch of grass on the side of the road.
The American cyclist from Elk Grove, Calif., felt nothing but pain.
Seconds earlier, Huffman sprinted across the finish line in Santa Clarita to win Stage 4 of the Amgen Tour of California. Wednesday’s 99-mile stretch started in Santa Barbara and featured a breakaway of five riders, including Huffman, for most of the race.
The stage victory was the first for Huffman at the Tour of California after the 27-year-old narrowly missed the top podium spot at the Santa Clarita finish last year.
“It’s incredible,” Huffman said. “Last year was a really awesome race for me here and probably a breakthrough performance. To come back and top it is really satisfying.”
Huffman’s Rally Cycling teammate, Rob Britton of Canada, finished second. Team Sunweb cyclist Lennard Hofstede of the Netherlands finished third. Huffman and Britton became the first Continental riders to finish 1-2 in a stage of a WorldTour event. Continental riders are basically from the third tier of the three professional competition levels.
BORA-hansgrohe rider Rafal Majka, 27, of Poland remains the overall leader since taking over the position during Monday’s Stage 2. Rally Cycling, a Continental team based in the United States, leads the overall team race.
Shortly after rolling to a start in Santa Barbara, Huffman, Britton, Gavin Mannion, Lenard Hofstede and Mathias Le Turnier led a breakaway.
Huffman and Britton, 32, were the only pair of teammates in the break, which worked to their benefit.
The break gained a nine-minute lead, the largest gap of the tour, 50 miles away from the finish. But their advantage dwindled to six minutes with 37 miles remaining and continued to shrink after riders made a short but steep ascent up Balcom Canyon.
“A lot of teams were surprised with the breakaway,” said world champion Peter Sagan, a Slovakian who finished sixth Wednesday after winning Stage 3.
With more than a mile and a half until the finish, the break’s lead was less than a minute, but a strong tailwind aided them to the end.
Half of a mile before the finish Huffman eyed the other riders and accelerated from his seat before he began a full sprint across the line.
“I went way, way too early but I just … people start to look at each other,” Huffman said. “I’m still kind of in disbelief as to how I finished. I just crossed the line and was pretty spent, physically and mentally.”
Said Britton: “It was pretty great to go one-two. … We were all very invested in the whole day. If you’re hurting, everyone else is probably hurting just as much.”
The Tour of California continues Thursday when it starts in Ontario and travels 78 miles, climbing 12,000 feet to the top of Mount Baldy. On Friday, an individual time trial will be held over a course at Big Bear Lake.
Several riders have said those stages would be decisive in the race.
“The one nice thing about a stage like tomorrow is that it’s so hard that it’s not complicated,” said Lachlan Morton of Australia, who is fourth overall. “It just depends on your legs.”
The Tour of California will conclude Saturday after a 77-mile ride that begins at the Mountain High ski resort, winds through the Angeles National Forest and ends at the convention center in Pasadena.