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Amgen Tour of California stage 5 preview: Tough finish circuits could shake up GC

The Amgen Tour of California returns to Visalia for the start of stage 5, a stage that will take the riders through the heart of the San Joaquin Valley and into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

It’s a stage that Andrew Messick, president of race owner AEG Sports, predicted could have an impact on the general classification should an overall favorite attack on the 10-percent China Grade climb during the finishing circuits.

“If one of the GC guys decides to launch at the bottom, they could take six or seven seconds at the line,” Messick said.

After departing Visalia, the race heads due south through the towns of Exeter and Lindsay. Just south of Porterville, the route heads further inland and tackles the narrow and twisty category 3 climb over Old Stage Road into the town of Woody. Though a long, steep climb, it tops out a full 60 miles from the finish.

Continuing on to Bakersfield, the route heads into the Kern River oil field, the fifth largest in the United States, where the riders will encounter several short, steep climbs, including the category 4 Round Mountain Road.

From atop the final climb,, China Grade, the cyclists will be able to look down onto the finish at Bakersfield College. The peloton will encounter the 10-percent climb up China Grade twice more over a pair of finishing circuits in Bakersfield.

Prior to this year’s Amgen Tour of California, VeloNews sat down with five riders for a stage-by-stage breakdown. Those riders — Levi Leipheimer, Dave Zabriskie, Ben Day, Mike Friedman and Rory Sutherland — form an expert panel VeloNews.com is referring to all week for insider analysis. Here’s what they had to say:

Levi Leipheimer (USA), RadioShack:
You have two laps, three times up the final climb. I’ve seen it; I don’t know if it’s 10 percent, I don’t think it’s quite that steep. But it’s not just a little bump. Can a sprinter win? Of course. But there will be guys who have no interest in sprinting or GC and they’re going to get dropped. They’re going to sit up, and gaps are going to open. I’ve seen it; it’s a wide road, two lanes with big shoulders, so not too bad fighting for position. I think it will go smoothly. It’s always possible a GC rider could attack, but I think a few teams will be setting the pace pretty high to set up for the stage win.

Dave Zabriskie (USA), Garmin-Transitions:
Circuits, they are always intense, you have to be at the front, especially with a 10-percent climb going into it. Gaps can open up. You just hope that it’s a decent road. A 10-percent road that’s a single-lane is much different than a 10-percent road that’s four lanes. A single-lane is much more stressful to fight people for the front. There will be those that fought for position that can’t hold the wheels, they’ll do a little blow up, and that will open more gaps. If it’s a bigger road, there won’t be that much stress.

Rory Sutherland (Australia), UnitedHealthcare-Maxxis:
I went and did a little bit of recon on that one, because it wasn’t that far north, we could go up from one of the races we were doing in southern California and have a look. It’s a beautiful stage, it steps into the Sierras. We were there in January so the weather wasn’t fantastic. There’s a pretty decent climb in the middle of the stage. To start off with it can be a bit cross-windy through the valley. It goes up over this climb and then you descend for something like 50km, but it seems to be a gradual descent rather than a hairpin, crazy descent. You think it’s going to be a sprinter’s stage, but I’m betting against that. It has a pretty hard little circuit at the end, it actually reminds me a lot of stages of the Tour of Georgia. You have those big, long, open stages with big roads and then with 10k to go it goes down to one lane and you have steep climbs and corners. That makes it super exciting; it means the GC guys are going to have to really be on their toes to be in position, and it means that the guys who have a little punch at the end, and can climb decently, can have a really good opportunity. What kind of rider would be good in a finish like that? It’s definitely like a Hincapie, or a perfect example would be a Valverde or a Kim Kirchen, or hopefully myself. If you can just get over that climb in a good group and in good position, and have a little power at the end, then you should be able to run a pretty good place in that finish.

Mike Friedman (USA), Jelly Belly:

Everyone will position themselves before the climb; there will be a breakaway that goes, there always is. It’s going to be a mad dash to the top of the first climb, then a mad dash to the finish. But it’s sixty miles to the finish from the top of that climb. Some of these climbs are so early on that it won’t really effect what the outcome of the race is. If the climb was later in the race it would really effect it. It also depends how long the climb is, and the grade, but with sixty miles to the finish line not much is going to change regardless. Even if it’s split by five minutes, if the front field isn’t drilling it the grupetto is going to get back on. That’s just the way it is. But if some GC guys are in the grupetto, or really suffering that day, that could also change a lot.

Ben Day (Australia), Fly V Australia:
I foresee the stage being another day for the sprinters, except it’s going to suit a different type of sprinter. Looking at the profile, it looks fairly flat compared to some of the other stages. There’s a long climb in the middle, fairly gradual, and the road isn’t the best so it’s going to be important to keep good position and stay safe through that area. It’s a long, downhill run into the finish, but then once we get into the finish itself, into Bakersfield, there’s a circuit there that’s really, really tough. I think some of the heavy sprinters may really suffer through there, and the GC guys are going to have to be very attentive to make sure they’re right near the front, and make sure they don’t let any splits form in the group. That could finish the race for one of the GC guys. For us, it could be a great race for someone like Charles Dionne or Bernard Sulzberger, John Cantwell, you never know who’s going really well. We’re just going to have to see how that circuit really plays out. It’s going to be a sprint finish, but it’s going to be a different type of sprinter that wins this stage. For a little guy, somebody who has great anaerobic capacity but isn’t a sprinter and doesn’t have that really powerful acceleration, it’s hard to stay on the wheel. Those guys are punching it so hard, and there are such completely different types of athletes, you need to be very attentive and make sure you’re in a good position and make sure you have a little bit of room to fall back. If you’re on the end of the bunch, you’re in trouble. Plus you’ll have some lead-out guys you have to work your way around as well. It’s going to be very important to be aggressive and stay near the front.

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