Egan Bernal knew it would take a major effort on the toughest climb of the Tour of California to make up the 23-second gap to Tejay van Garderen on the race's penultimate stage.
He wiped out the gap and kept right on going.
The 21-year-old Colombian climber surged clear of what remained of a shattered peloton on the last major climb into South Lake Tahoe, sped dangerously downhill and then kicked once more on the short ramp to the finish to claim Stage 6 along with the overall race lead Friday.
All that's left for Bernal, who held the yellow jersey for two days after winning Stage 2 earlier in the week, is to stay safe on Saturday's final circuit-style stage in Sacramento.
“I'm so proud of the guys, the team, the staff,” said Bernal, who is poised to earn the biggest win of his young career. “This week has been amazing for me. They are doing a really good job, like I said before. I'm so proud to be in this team and this victory is for them.”
Adam Yates finished 1 minutes, 28 seconds back in second, followed by Bernal's teammate Tao Geoghegan Hart. Van Garderen finished in a group of three riders 1:38 back, leaving the American with a 1:25 deficit on Bernal heading into the final stage.
Earlier in the day, Katie Hall used a similarly strong effort on the climbs around picturesque Lake Tahoe in the second stage of the women's race. Taylor Wiles was second and Katarzyna Niewiadoma rounded out the podium, leaving Hall with a 29-second lead on Wiles in the general classification.
“I knew I was on pretty good form because I had won three domestic GCs this spring,” Hall said, “but I hadn't seen the European riders. I had no idea my fitness compared to theirs. So I just went out and gave it a try and I'm happy how it ended up.”
So was Bernal after arguably the strongest ride of his career.
The Team Sky standout lost the leader's jersey to van Garderen two days ago, when the hard-charging American scorched the time trial. But the Colombian national time trial champion was able to keep his losses in check, and trailed by just 23 seconds heading into the sixth stage.
The early breakaway never had much chance, not on a stage that started by going uphill and never really let up. By the time the peloton hit the climb of Daggett Summit just across the border in Nevada, the big names angling for the stage and overall win were moving to the front.
Team Sky laid down a punishing pace, and riders began dropping off one by one. Van Garderen quickly lost his BMC Racing teammates, leaving him isolated among the heavy hitters.
Geoghegan Hart pushed the tempo a bit more, opening a gap among the final half-dozen riders, and Bernal surged across the gap to join him. That forced van Garderen to put down a big effort and do the same, and as soon as the Montana native latched on, Bernal took advantage of the opportunity.
He raced ahead with a devastating surge, and van Garderen's tired legs couldn't answer again. The gap quickly opened and soon Bernal had a minute advantage as the riders hit the summit.
“These guys from Sky were going to set the pace. They needed to drop Tejay. So that's what they did,” Yates said. “And that last climb with the altitude, it was difficult.”
Bernal ripped down the backside of the climb, then time trialed on a short flat section, before the final 1,500 meters to the finish line. He managed to not only maintain his lead on van Garderen over the last section but add to it, giving him a comfy cushion by the time he crossed the tape.
At least, enough to thrust his arm in the air in triumph.
“Today was a long day but I felt so good,” Bernal said, “and in the last long climb, the team did a really good job. They made it really hard and then I just tried, and it was difficult because after this climb, there were like, 10 kilometers to arrive. It was just keep pushing hard.