When others were grimacing with the stress and effort of a daunting climb up Mt. Baldy, Robert Gesink seemed untroubled.
The 25-year-old Dutchman, who only last September suffered a broken leg in a training crash, powered to the overall lead at the Amgen Tour of California by winning Saturday’s big mountain stage.
Going into Sunday’s final 42.6-mile route that begins in Beverly Hills and finishes in front of Staples Center, Gesink, riding for the Rabobank team, has a 46-second lead over Dave Zabriskie of the Garmin-Barracuda team and a 54-second lead over Tom Danielson, another American Garmin-Barracuda rider.
Gesink’s time in Saturday’s 78.3-mile stage that began in Ontario was 3 hours 37 minutes 8 seconds. His overall time is 29:14:52. Gesink edged out climber Jhon Atapuma of the Colombia Coldeportes team to win the seventh of eight stages. Another Colombian, Fabio Duarte Arevalo, was third to the top of Mt. Baldy.
Zabriskie, a three-time runner-up in America’s biggest stage race but never a winner, had begun Saturday’s stage in first place overall but had mentioned Gesink as a big threat after Friday’s run to Big Bear, and Zabriskie’s prediction proved accurate.
This is the seventh Amgen Tour of California, and the leader after the penultimate stage has, so far, always won the race. Sunday’s course, as usual, is made for sprinters to take some final points but not for the overall leaders to change their status.
Gesink came to California looking to test his form after suffering a broken leg in a training ride last September. His father also passed away in 2011, making it a year to forget.
“This is amazing,” he said. “In January I was still learning how to walk. Now I’m back. I’ve been working really, really hard the last few months. This was my first race ever and I’m really happy to be back at this level after a difficult year.”
It seemed as if Gesink might have a disastrous finish when he wobbled and almost toppled while taking the last corner.
“I got surprised a little bit,” he said. “I saw the blue podium and thought it was the finish. So I’m happy to take the stage victory and also the lead. Everybody was suffering, especially on the last climb.”
Gesink said his physical recovery has not been easy.
“I broke my leg in four places,” he said. “I have a lot of pins and screws still in it. I could ride my bike earlier than I could walk but the last few steps are the most difficult.
“I wanted results a bit faster, but now I’m here and really, really happy it all is coming together over here in America. I have really good memories because I spent a lot of my holidays here. So I like California and winning this race would be a good combo for me.”