SANTA CLARITA, Calif. — Evan Huffman had spent nearly the entire day in a breakaway with four other riders at the Tour of California, his energy drained and his legs pushed to the limit in an effort to stay away.
Yet his mind couldn’t help but wander.
Huffman thought back to last year’s stage into Santa Clarita, when he was part of a breakaway that also stayed clear to the finish. And he couldn’t help but think about Ben King beating him to the line that day, dashing the American rider’s chances of a career-defining victory.
"I was just thinking about how much it would stink not to win again," Huffman said.
No need to think about that anymore.
With the hard-charging peloton chasing them down, Huffman sprinted clear of the five-man break and threw his arms up at the finish line, winning the fourth stage in dramatic fashion Wednesday.
He was followed across the line by Rally Cycling teammate Rob Britton in a banner day for the small U.S.-based squad, which was granted a wild card to compete against some of the world’s top teams.
"I can’t believe we did it. It’s still so surreal," Huffman said after collapsing onto a patch of grass at the finish line. "This is obviously, being a continental team, the first WorldTour race we’ve ever done and to win a stage is just incredible."
Lennard Hofstede, Mathias Le Turnier and Gavin Mannion followed them across after spending about 98 of the 99 miles from Santa Barbara in the breakaway. Their advantage reached nine minutes before the peloton finally began giving serious chase, and by that point it was too late.
Peter Sagan led the field across the line 13 seconds behind the leaders.
"A lot of teams were surprised with the breakaway," said Sagan, who won the previous stage along the Pacific Coast on Tuesday. "They took a lot of minutes from the start and after it was really hard to catch them. Almost impossible. It was impossible."
Rafal Majka retained his overall lead, two seconds ahead of George Bennett, heading into the potentially decisive climb up Mount Baldy in the fifth stage Thursday.
The big question is how the top contenders will respond from a tough day in the saddle.
The lumpy fourth stage wasn’t supposed to be too taxing before the road tilts uphill, but the breakaway changed the complexion of it. They broke free in the first couple miles and extended their sizeable advantage up the last big climb of the day, a kicker at Balcom Canyon Road.
Sensing the lead growing too much, the peloton began to give chase with the teams belonging to top sprinters moving to the front. At one points, six riders from Quick-Step were at the front, driving the field along in hopes of giving Marcel Kittel an opportunity to win the stage.
There was a worrisome moment for overall contender Andrew Talansky, who punctured with about five miles to go. But he was ferried back to the field by Taylor Phinney and did not lose any time.
The advantage of the breakaway was down to 35 seconds with a mile to go, and the peloton could see the leaders on a long straightaway — tantalizingly close, yet just a little too far.
Huffman was the first to surge, then looked over his shoulder and realized he had built a gap on his fellow breakaway riders. He put his head down and buried himself in getting to the line.
"It was really back and forth," Huffman said, when asked whether he thought the break would stay away. "All five of us were just rotating, pulling hard. We knew that I we started messing around too much we were going to get caught."
The overall contenders finished safely in the field, keeping their place behind Majka in the pecking order heading into two crucial stages. The mountaintop finish of Stage 5 should shake up the standings, and time trial at Big Bear Lake on Friday will also be important.
"Today I’m a little bit suffering, but this stage tomorrow is very important to me and maybe tomorrow is better," Majka said. "We’ll see how I respond, my legs, after four days."