ELK GROVE — The riders began toppling over a few miles from the finish line, the crash cluttering up the left side of the road into Elk Grove with broken bikes and bodies.
Fortunately for Fernando Gaviria, he was on the right side of the road.
The Colombian sprinter dodged all the trouble during a chaotic finish to the fifth stage of the Amgen Tour of California, then held off hard-charging Caleb Ewan and world champion Peter Sagan at the finish line Thursday to pick up his second victory of this year's race. The race began at Stockton Arena late Thursday morning, the first time the event has been held in the city in 11 years.
Ewan earned his second podium and Sagan wound up third, while American rider Tejay van Garderen finished safely in the field to maintain his overall leaded heading into today's decisive summit stage.
"I didn't see (the chaos) because I went to the right. The crash was on the left side. I only listened into my radio," Gaviria said. "The other guys from the team, they did a really good job, and we are happy because it was a really nice victory today."
Earlier in the day, American rider Kendall Ryan won the bunch sprint in Elk Grove to take the first of the three stages of the women's race. Emma White was second and Annette Edmondson was third.
The start of the men's event in Stockton featured a large, cheering crowd as the riders pulled up on to Fremont Street from the frontage road between the arena and University Waterfront Plaza Hotel.
"It was a great crowd. We've had great crowds all week," Ewan said. "A klot of people showed up to support us."
The men's race was relatively quiet most of the day, the breakaway never getting far enough ahead to cause much concern. But things picked up in the run-in to the finish, beginning with some crosswinds and then some mechanical issues that caused trouble for some top sprinters.
Ewan punctured with about six miles to go and had to chase back. British star Mark Cavendish had to change wheels and chase back, then narrowly dodged the pile-up on the run-in to the finish. Marcel Kittel also had a puncture that took the big sprinter out of the running.
The Quick-Step Floors team of Gaviria managed to remain intact, and they produced a textbook lead-out for him. Max Richeze delivered Gaviria to the front, and he took control a little further from the line than normal but still had the legs to hold off Ewan and Sagan at the finish.
"It was a pretty straightforward stage," Ewan said. "I punctured, then we had to use some guys early to get me back to the bunch, but they got me into a good position to do the sprint."
Van Garderen's goal was to avoid trouble and conserve energy for the sixth stage, a long slog from Folsom to Lake Tahoe that includes six categorized climbs before the summit finish.
He'll try to protect a 23-seconds advantage over Egan Bernal and 37 seconds on Dan Martinez.
"It will be a hard breakaway to get into. That already will make the race hard," van Garderen predicted. "Then the final climb heading up into Tahoe, I expect Bernal and a lot of the other climbers will try to attack and win the race there."
The women will also tackle the big climbs of Lake Tahoe, and it will be Ryan in the yellow jersey after he perfectly timed sprint Thursday. The California native has been searching for a big result all season, and she delivered it in a crucial race for her Team Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank squad.
The joy was evident by the triumphant roar she let out across the finish line.
"I think every breath left my body because I was so happy to win. That's why you saw me screaming," she said. "I've never won a yellow jersey so it means a lot, especially in my home stage, where I grew up. It's huge. My whole family is here, all my friends are cheering me on.
"This was one of my dreams to win," Ryan said, "so I'm just kind of blown away right now."