VENTURA — Team Bahrain-Merida spent most of the fifth stage at the Tour of California at the front of the peloton, setting a hard pace but leaving nobody quite sure what their end-game might be.
Turns out it was Ivan Garcia Cortina.
The 23-year-old Spanish cyclist moved to the front after the final couple of solo attacks were reeled in by the rest of the field, then sprinted ahead of Maximiliano Richeze and Sergio Higuita to win a stage Thursday that was racked by brutal crosswinds of up to 45 mph near the finish.
Tejay van Garderen finished safely in the main field to retain the overall race lead.
“It was really windy for us,” he said. “We survived OK. The team kept me safe, kept the breakaway in check and we were able to survive another day.”
In the women’s race, which began with an out-and-back ride to Ventura, reigning Olympic champion Anna van der Breggen got loose in the final couple miles to win the opening stage.
After a chaotic and controversial fourth stage, when crashes near the finish put the overall lead in the hands of the race jury, the fifth stage of the men’s race was relatively straightforward.
The opening breakaway covered most of the lumpy, 136-mile run from Pismo Beach before it was brought back in the closing miles. Tim Declercq gave it a solo shot with about 6 miles to go, building a substantial lead, but he was swept up on the final climb before the finish.
Former overall winner George Bennett also attacked on the windy run-in, but the group came together for the final mile and it was Cortina who got to the front to win the bunch sprint.
“The team had full confidence in me,” said Cortina, who got his first WorldTour win after several close calls last season. “I was thinking about, if I can give 200 percent I can win.”
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Richeze followed across for Deceuninck-Quick Step, which had won each of the previous three stages with different riders. Higuita rounded out the podium for EF Education First, which did a masterful job of controlling the race and keeping van Garderen in the yellow jersey.
“It was just a really fast day,” said van Garderen, whose lead dropped to four seconds over Kasper Asgreen and six over Gianni Moscon heading into the tour’s penultimate day.
Van der Breggen will have the yellow jersey for Stage 2 of the women’s race after the world champ, fresh off her victory at La Fleche Wallonne, showed veteran patience all afternoon.
Olga Zabelinskaya tried to attack late in the race, and Lizzie Deignan soon joined her in the pursuit. But the duo was caught as the field approached the same finish as the men, and van der Breggen surged ahead to seize control of the race she won two years ago.
“The team performed well,” said Danny Stam, the manager of van der Breggen’s powerful Boels-Dolmans team. “Katie (Hall) attacked after 53 kilometers (33 miles), causing the break. After that we brought back the leader just in time for Anna to place her final attack. She brought home the victory.”
Elisa Balsamo took second place and Arlenis Sierra rounded out the podium.
Now comes the crucial stage for both the men and women.
The sixth stage for the men Friday takes riders just 79 miles, but it includes the torturous climb up Mt. Baldy, where the overall race is likely to be decided. Some sections of the climb reach a grade of 16%, eclipsing even some of the steepest European climbs.
The women also will trek through the San Gabriel Mountains before ending up at Mt. Baldy, where defending race winner Katie Hall will stretch her climbing legs in an attempt to win again.
“The feeling in our team, the mood is really good,” van Garderen said. “We have three riders in the race still with the potential to win on Baldy, we’re super confident that we have the strongest team here and I think in our mind we’re still playing for the victory.”