The 157km second stage came down to a battle of legs on the final 12km Gibraltar Rd ascent, which the Briton finished 25 seconds in arrears of new race leader Egan Bernal (Sky) and four seconds adrift of runner-up Rafal Majka (BORA-hansgrohe).
Yates hasn’t competed since he sustained a fractured pelvis in a serious crash at the Volta a Catalunya almost two months ago. He arrived in California on the back of a training block around Lake Tahoe, and with a team predominately built around sprinter Caleb Ewan.
The 25-year-old hunched over his bike bars past the finish line in rich Santa Barbara County, catching his breath. He appeared pale in a later press conference but was generally pleased.
“It’s been a long time since I last raced so can’t really expect much more. Third in the stage and the guys that beat me were stronger than me,” he said.
“It was pretty easy out there, a little bit windy but the rest of the guys on the team are pretty big so I get a good seat behind them. They put me in a good position on the climb and then it was just me, so not too bad.”
Yates has further opportunities in California, notably the penultimate stage from Folsom to South Lake Tahoe that features seven categorised climbs and should determine the overall classification.
He entered the seven-stage tour outlining a top 10 on general classification as a “realistic” outcome considering his run-in and the race route, which includes a 34.7km time trial.
“I knew where I was but you never know until you actually get on the climb and feel how everyone else is. I’m pretty happy with how I’m going,” he said of his shape.
Yates will lead Mitchelton-Scott’s overall assault at the Tour de France in July.
Management is confident he is still on track for an overall bid there despite the earlier season injury setback.