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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: California tour has a sting in the tail

Despite being in only its fifth year and lasting just eight days, the Amgen Tour of California is fast approaching the status of a three-week grand tour — in terms of the publicity it generates. That was shown by last week’s online release, over four days, of the 2010 stage details, and by the number of Tour de France contenders choosing to compete in the U.S. when the Giro d’Italia is under way in Europe.

There were fears that moving the American race from February to May would dilute the quality of the field, but among those scheduled to race in California May 16-23 are Team RadioShack’s Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer, Saxo Bank’s Andy Schleck, Liquigas’s Vincenzo Nibali and HTC-Columbia’s Michael Rogers. All of these men will be on the Tour start line six weeks later, challenging Alberto Contador for the yellow jersey.

This new date makes the Tour of California an ideal springboard to the Tour, with its eight days of racing followed two weeks later by the weeklong Dauphiné Libéré in France (or three weeks later by the Tour of Switzerland).

So what sort of racing will this year’s Tour of California produce? Will the event’s first-ever mountaintop finish prove decisive in the GC stakes? Will an Aussie or European finally defeat the Americans? Or will we see another decisive time trial — and a “four-peat” for Leipheimer?

The weather and the tactics always determine the outcome of a race, but a detailed study of the just-announced route reveals how the outcome will be shaped:

Sunday, May 16, Stage 1: Nevada City—Sacramento (167.8km)

On the day that former Tour of California standouts Christian Vande Velde, Cadel Evans and Ivan Basso will battle for the maglia rosa on the first summit finish of the Giro, Monte Terminillo, the American stage race opens in unusual fashion. All the teams will ride in their buses from hotels in Sacramento to the start in Nevada City, population 3,000, which celebrates the 50th running of its annual bike race this year. The stage itself twists through the foothills of the Sierras (with a steep 5km climb to a town called Cool just before half distance) before a perfectly flat 50km approach to the finish back in Sacramento, where crosswinds could be a factor. Three laps of a 3.2km city loop favor those teams used to teeing up their sprinters in criteriums, so perhaps one of the Haedo brothers will take the win for Saxo Bank.

Monday, May 17, Stage 2: Davis—Santa Rosa (171.7km)

This course is similar to the 2009 stage between the same two cities, but after the Howell Mountain climb at the100km mark this year’s route heads south down the Napa Valley before tackling a much tougher finale. This comprises the Oakville and Trinity Grades before taking the hilly Bennet Valley Road into Santa Rosa. With no finishing laps this year, expect a medium-size group containing all the GC favorites to contest the straight-shot finish in Leipheimer’s hometown.

Tuesday May 18, Stage 3: San Francisco—Santa Cruz (182.3km)

Stage 3 profile

This is a beefed-up version of last year’s stage 2 to Santa Cruz when Leipheimer made his decisive attack to take the overall lead he never relinquished. The climb up Bonny Doon Road where he broke away from the pack is retained, as is the earlier haul from the Pacific Coast Highway up Tunitas Creek Road; the difference is that after Tunitas, the course heads straight down to Woodside in the Silicon Valley before returning to the PCH via a climb on Highway 84 to Skyline Boulevard and a shorter one out of La Honda. A successful breakaway looks certain on these often twisting, narrow roads and the finish at Sant Cruz’s famed boardwalk seems sure to see a new race leader.

Wednesday May 19, Stage 4: San Jose—Modesto (195.5km)

This is almost a carbon copy of the 2009 stage between the same two cities won by Thor Hushovd in a mass sprint finish. The rugged Sierra Road climb again opens the action straight from the streets of San Jose, but after a sprint in downtown Livermore, the stage heads southeast instead of east to take in the 30km grind up the narrow, twisting Mines Road to almost 3,000 feet elevation before descending to the Central Valley and the flat finale. The sprinters should again vie for the victory over two and a half laps of a crit-like finishing circuit in Modesto.

Thursday May 20, Stage 5: Visalia—Bakersfield (195.6km)

Although this a completely new stage, it resembles the one last year that climbed through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and ended with a bunch sprint win for Mark Cavendish in Clovis. The big difference is the 3.6km finishing loop, where the riders will make three climbs of the 1km, 10-percent China Grade just before the 400-meter-long finish straight at Bakersfield College. That finale favors someone who can hold firm after attacking on a short, sharp climb — perhaps a rider like Nibali.

Stage 6 profile

Friday May 21, Stage 6:PasadenaBig Bear Lake (213.7km)

This stage has been billed as the toughest ever at the Tour of California, with more than 12,000 feet of climbing and a finish at almost 7,000 feet elevation at the base of Snow Summit ski station.

It’s not strictly a mountaintop finish because the final 30km is either downhill or flat around the north side of Big Bear Lake to a final uphill kilometer to the line (where a sprint will likely determine the stage victory). However, with four lengthy (but not especially steep) categorized climbs, including Dawson Saddle on the Angeles Crest Highway at 7.903 feet — the highpoint in the event’s five-year history — and the 7,112-foot Lakeview Point, this longest stage of the race will determine who are the 15 or 20 strongest men prior to the final weekend. It would be great to see Andy Schleck battling for the stage win, but the flattish final kilometers make this unlikely.

Saturday May 22, Stage 7: Los Angeles TT (33.6km)

This is not the picturesque course the organizers had first envisioned at Venice Beach, but a 33.6km time trial (the longest in race history) over two laps of a circuit in downtown Los Angeles will almost certainly determine who is going to win this year’s Tour of California. The start and finish are at LA Live, the entertainment center that’s the crown jewel of AEG, the race owner. With 20 turns on each lap, along with two short climbs, it’s a TT course that demands good bike handling as well as outright strength. No doubt, Armstrong, Leipheimer, Nibali and Rogers will all be vying for the stage win … and the outright victory.

Stage 8 profile

Sunday May 23, Stage 8: Thousand Oaks-Westlake Village-Agoura Hills circuit (134.4km)

With the GC set after the time trial, this challenging finale will likely see the overall leaders marking each other, giving the lesser lights a chance at winning the stage. Four times up the infamous Rock Store climb (4km at 7 percent) will make this a race of attrition, much like a world road championship, but the 134.4km distance is only half that of a worlds. This spectacular conclusion to the California race will almost certainly end with three Tour de France contenders on the final podium, while on this same day in Italy a few other Tour challengers will be contesting one of the Giro’s legendary mountaintop finishes at Monte Zoncolan.

Total distance: 1,294.6km / 804.4 miles

You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson.

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