SACRAMENTO, California (VN) — Make no mistake, the 2019 Amgen Tour of California will be won and lost on Mt. Baldy.

How will the rest of the race unfold? It’s anybody’s guess.

All of the GC riders who participated in the event’s pre-race press conference pointed to the hulking climb in Southern California as the only decisive stretch of pavement at this year’s race. The summit finish falls on the race’s sixth stage, and sits atop a nonstop 4,000-foot climb that tackles Glendora Mountain Road before the final 15 switchbacks on Mt. Baldy Road.

“I think whoever wins on Baldy gets a Lexus,” said George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma), the champion here in 2017. “It’s going to come down to Baldy.”

The presence of just one decisive section sits in contrast to the overall theme of the 14th running of the Tour of California. Billed as the longest and hardest race ever, the event indeed comprises 1,251km of racing distance and 20,725 total meters of climbing – on paper the toughest edition ever.

In an effort to bottle the tension over the GC battle until the final weekend, organizers jettisoned the traditional mid-race individual time trial, and instead added more kilometers and more meters of climbing. The finish product is an amalgamation of long and punishing stages that seem to lack a decisive coup de grace at the end.

Perhaps that’s a good thing.

Breakaways take center stage

In lieu of multiple decisive GC days, the 2019 Tour of California should provide compelling battles for individual stage wins, and cater to hardcore fans who enjoy the thrill of breakaways battling chase groups. There are four stages that appear custom-built for breakaways.

Stage 2 from Racho Cordova to South Lake Tahoe comprises a leg-cracking 4,500 total meters of uphill, much of it at high altitude. Yet there is no decisive summit finish, but rather the traditional uphill kick to South Lake Tahoe after the climb up Luther Pass. A strong attack on Luther Pass could springboard a rider to victory; it could also fizzle along the long, flat run-in to the line.

Stage 3 from Stockton to Morgan Hill takes in the traditional ascent of Mt. Hamilton—in 2017 Bennett attacked on the mountain alongside Rafal Majka, Lachlan Morton, and Ian Boswell to create the first major time gaps of the race. But for 2019 organizers have pushed the finish back all the way to Morgan Hill, giving the GC favorites plenty of time to regroup on the run-in to the line.

An aggressive breakaway on Mt Hamilton, however, could survive to the finish.

After a sprint stage in Morro Bay, the race’s fifth stage from Pismo Beach to Ventura features extremely hilly terrain before a narrow and steep climb just 5km from the finish. The kicker could be a perfect springboard for an opportunist to score a dramatic victory along the Ventura shoreline.

Finally, the race concludes with another tried-and-true route, the mountainous journey from Santa Clarita to downtown Pasadena. The road climbs high into the San Gabriel Mountains, which will provide ample opportunity for riders to attack into a breakaway, before the twisting descent into Pasadena.

A focused chase group could set up Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) or another versatile sprinter for a quick finish. A breakaway could also make it to the line.

The presence of lumpy terrain could open the door for the cadre of breakaway specialists and opportunist teams in this year’s lineup. Breakaway favorite Toms Skujins (Trek-Segafredo) is here, as is former stage winner Ben King (Dimension Data), U.S. national champion Jonny Brown (Hagens Berman Axeon), and two-time stage winner Evan Huffman (Rally-UHC).

The GC battle

The GC lineup for the 2019 race is strong, albeit weaker than it was in 2018 when Egan Bernal, Adam Yates, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Laurens De Plus, Daniel Martinez and Rafal Majka squared off against van Garderen and the other Americans.

With only one real decisive day, the race should play to an expert climber who has the all-around fitness to survive the other days.

On paper, EF-Education First has the strongest lineup in the race, with van Garderen and Rigoberto Uran, who is making his comeback to racing after breaking his collarbone at Paris-Nice. Bennett is also a favorite, returning to the race after skipping the 2018 edition, as is Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo), who is searching for form after an early-season illness. The list of other potential GC threats includes Rohan Dennis (Bahrain-Merida), David de la Cruz (Ineos), and American youngster Brandon McNulty (Rally-UHC).

Fewer sprinters

The sprint lineup is also diminished somewhat from the heyday of 2017, when nearly ever WorldTour great used the race to prepare for the Tour de France. Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), Jasper Philipsen (UAE-Team Emirates), John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) and Sagan are all here, presumably preparing themselves for the Tour de France.

A noticeable no-show is Marcel Kittel, who recently announced he was taking time away from the sport.

The strongest sprint team again appears to be Deceuninck-Quick Step, which has arrived with Fabio Jakobsen and Max Richeze for the finishes.