SANTA BARBARA — Egan Bernal tasted glory at the Tour of California when he rode solo to the top of Gibraltar Road.
Sebastian Henao and Tao Geoghegan Hart were just as heroic Monday.
After powerful Team Sky worked to bring back the early breakaway, the pair of worker bees rode to the front of the peloton and set a brutal pace up the final climb of the day. One by one, Henao and then Geoghegan Hart splintered what was left of the main group, dropping top climbers such as Neilson Powless and Peter Stetina before the final couple of kilometers.
With the group whittled to about a dozen riders, Bernal finally moved to the front, unleashing a big kick that drove him clear and left him to ride solo into the overall leader's jersey.
"The last part was the most important part of the race. In the final two kilometers, I attacked and arrived alone," the Colombian rider said. "I'm so happy because my team did a great job. When I attacked I did my own pace. I looked at my watts, my pace, and I needed to take control of the climb."
Rafal Majka of Bora-Hansgrohe was 21 seconds back in second, followed by Adam Yates of Mitchelton-Scott and Antwan Tolhoek of LottoNL-Jumbo. The top American finisher was Tejay van Garderen of the BMC Racing Team, who was strong early on the climb but wound up 50 seconds back of the winner.
With the time bonuses, Bernal rode into the overall lead through two stages with 25 seconds on Majka and 31 seconds on Yates. And with a relatively flat third stage Tuesday, which begins in King City and finishes at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey County, he should be able to maintain it.
The big question is whether he'll keep it on Wednesday.
The slight Bernal is happy going uphill, but he doesn't have the big motor of his biggest rivals in the time trial. The fourth stage in San Jose is a relatively long race against the clock, and that means Bernal will be hard-pressed to hang onto the leader's jersey later in the week.
"I'm not sure because I have not seen the results yet, but the time trial will be long. I'm not sure (of my chances)," Bernal said. "I'm happy because I won today. Tomorrow I will try to keep the jersey and then we will see with the time trial. I'm not sure yet."
The day's breakaway of Adam De Vos, Jonny Clarke and Ruben Companioni developed right away, building a six-minute lead at one point. But with its climbers in fine form, Team Sky sent powerhouse Ian Stannard to the front, and he almost single-handedly nailed back the break.
Then it was up to Henao and Geoghegan Hart, who pushed a relentless pace up the 8 percent grade of Gibraltar Road. It was the kind of furious pace-making the British outfit is known for doing for Chris Froome at the Tour de France, only this time it was Bernal who was hanging back and waiting.
"Tao is really impressive. He's my friend but he's also so strong," Bernal said. "He did a good job, and he also arrived close to the front."
Geoghegan Hart finally cracked with about two kilometers to go, but any thought that the remaining 12 riders would mix it up were quickly put to rest. Bernal popped free and nobody had the legs to nail back his attack, and he cruised all alone to his fourth stage win of the season.