In the Golden State last week, Will Routley was the king.
The Whistler-raised pro cyclist finished off an incredible performance at the Amgen Tour of California on Sunday, May 18, one that included a stage win and saw him take home the King of the Mountain (KOM) title after he dominated the climbs early in the eight-stage race.
Although Routley has already racked up a bunch of impressive results in 2014 alongside his Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies teammates, finishing with a KOM jersey and his first win in a UCI stage race — against a field full of World Tour teams — marks the greatest success he's realized in a decade of road racing.
"It's definitely the best result I've ever had," Routley said after landing in Vancouver on May 19. "And, it was a really, really top-calibre field they had at Tour of California this year... so I'm pretty proud of it.
"I went down with a suitcase half-empty and I'm coming home... with a fancy polka-dot T-shirt and a couple of trophies," he continued. "In this sport, you don't win that much, even when you're a superstar. For me, I certainly don't win that often, so it's pretty cool."
With KOM points up for grabs on Stages 1 and 3, Routley got out with the breakaway and was the climber to beat on both stages, which saw him wearing the KOM jersey heading into the fourth stage on May 14 — a 169-kilometre haul from Monterey to Cambria.
He got back out front again on Stage 4 to claim top points on all three of the climbing sections, extending his lead in the KOM standings. But Routley and the five other riders who made the early break realized on the descent that they might be able to keep the peloton from catching back up.
"The main goal was the KOMs and I was sprinting well for all three mountains," said the former Canadian national road race champion. "It really wasn't until 40 kilometres to go, less than an hour (from the finish), that we realized... there was a much stronger tail wind than we'd had all day. I think it took everyone by surprise.
"We were ripping along at 50 K an hour and realized... we might actually make it. All of a sudden everyone committed to the breakaway."
That made it a sprint finish for the riders up front, and Routley held off U.S. rider Gregory Daniel (Bissell Development Team) and Belgium's Kevin De Masmaeker (Team Novo Nordisk) in the final push to the line.
"When it comes down to the wire and you have to sprint, you're super focused on what you're doing for the last few K, and it's not until the last second reaching the line when, boom, an explosion of adrenaline," said Routley, describing the feeling of taking the victory. "It's pretty cool."
Routley's Stage 4 heroics also saw him surpass Mark Cavendish in the sprint standings, making him the owner of two classification jerseys at the end of the day.
The KOM remained the main goal for the remainder of the tour, and Routley all but locked up that jersey on Stage 5 between Pismo Beach and Santa Barbara. The 30-year-old charged to the front of the pack at the top of the San Marcos Pass to further extend his lead in the KOM standings.
"For the KOM competition, that was the crucial day, that fifth stage," said Routley, who turns 31 on Friday, May 23. "Fortunately, there was something still left in the legs."
Routley didn't add any more KOM points to his total over the final three stages, but he didn't need any — his 42 points were nearly double anyone else's in the field.
Team Sky's Bradley Wiggins, the 2012 Tour de France champ, won the race's general classification.
After bouncing around the Pro Continental ranks throughout his career, and now with his third team in as many years, Routley said the victories in California are somewhat of an affirmation of all the hard work he's put in over the years.
"At this point, I've gone around in circles," he said. "You always question how long to keep racing, but physically I'm as strong as I've ever been, so it's really great to have it come together."
Routley said the positive atmosphere amongst his Optum crew has played a big role in his success this season. But also key, he said, has been a less taxing schedule than he faced while racing primarily in Europe the last two years.
"We're busy on the road and racing a lot, but I've had a little bit more time to prepare and had a little more time in the offseason," he said. "It really shows; it pays off."
In the days following his stage victory, several cycling publications highlighted Routley's success as a triumph for clean racing, pointing to the Vancouver Sun article he wrote in 2012 that painted dopers as "criminals." Routley said it was neat to see that piece making the rounds again, and still having an impact with cycling fans.
"There's no shortage of clean racers out there, but because I wrote that article at a key time when a lot of that news was coming out to people, it really resonated," he said. "It's still important for the next generation to see and to have a positive role model. I'm kind of finding myself in that role."
Routley returns to action with his Optum teammates on June 1 at the Philadelphia Championship.