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Women’s peloton faces dynamic route, competitive lineup in California

The 2019 Tour of California women's race boasts its longest and hardest route ever, as well as a lineup of domestic and international stars

Will we see a repeat win for Katie Hall, or glory on Mt. Baldy for Canyon-SRAM’s Kasia Niewiadoma? How will world champion Anna van der Breggen do on the long sustained climbs in Southern California? Or, will we see the first WorldTour win for the new Trek-Segafrado squad?

There are plenty of questions that will be answered at the upcoming Amgen Tour of California Women’s Race empowered by SRAM. With a hard and dynamic route, and a strong lineup of domestic and WorldTour teams, the race is shaping up to be an exciting affair.

The Women’s Tour of California marks the midway point of the UCI women’s WorldTour calendar. It’s also the only Women’s WorldTour event on North American soil, and several European squads, including Dutch team Boels-Dolmans, have traveled to the race this year.

Longer and more dynamic course

In its nine editions, the women’s Tour of California format have changed multiple times. After experimenting with a standalone criterium and invitation-only time trials, organizers finally settled on a multi-day stage race in 2015, and the race was added to the WorldTour calendar that following year.

This year’s event takes place over three days and moves away from Lake Tahoe for the first time, passing through the southern Californian towns of Ventura, Ontario, Mt Baldy, Santa Clarita and Pasadena instead.

“At first I was bummed because I live in Northern California, but the change is good because it’s going to be a completely different race this year,” said Tayler Wiles (Trek-Segafredo), who finished second last year. “Big names, big teams and a new course. This year it’s three days where the GC could get totally shaken up. So I think it’s going to be really exciting racing.”

It’s also the longest women’s race in the event’s history, covering 177 miles with more than 20,800 feet of climbing, including the beastly ascent up Mount Baldy. While it may seem that the general classification will hinge on the Mt. Baldy stage, it’s far from guaranteed.

Running alongside the second half of the men’s tour, the women’s Tour of California kicks off in Ventura, on Thursday, May 16th, with the least hilly of its three stage. An out-and-back through the Ojai Valley, the peloton will traverse 60 miles and 4,885 feet of elevation gain spread over a total of six QOMs.

Depending on how many riders are resting for Mt Baldy, this course could yield either a lone winner or a small bunch sprint.

Stage 2 to Mt. Baldy is the one riders are either dreading or eagerly awaiting. With 8,416 feet of elevation gain over just 45 miles, and a mountaintop finish, it’s one for the purest of climbers. After a 19-mile ‘warm-up’ to the base of Glendora Mountain, the peloton will begin the long uphill push. First, a steady climb up to the Glendora summit, and then onto Mt Baldy village, and finally a short but steep ascent to the Mt. Baldy Resort ski lift.

Ranging between 9% and 16%, the grades in the middle of the section are unrelenting. And then, as the final nail in the coffin, the last half-mile push to the finish averages 12.8%. The steep finish often produces a solo winner.

In a race nearly identical to the men’s stage, the women’s peloton will travel 78 miles from Santa Clarita to Pasadena through the San Gabriel Mountains, climbing a total of 7,500 feet before making a final descent into the Pasadena for a finish at the iconic Rose Bowl.

There will be chances for teams to grab a few remaining Sprint and QOM points as well as time bonuses, so there is likely to be a battle to the finish.

The favorites

Due to significant travel costs and logistical challenges, European WorldTour teams often skipped this race in years past. That’s not the case this year: 12 of the 16 teams are squads that race primarily in Europe.

Past editions have produced dramatic battles. In 2017, the race came down to just one second. In a heated rivalry, Anna van der Breggen of Boels-Dolmans bested Katie Hall, racing for UnitedHealthcare at the time, after gaining bonus seconds on the final stage. Looking for vengeance, Hall returned to the Tour of California in 2018 and claimed the victory.

This year, Hall and Van der Breggen are teammates on the Boels-Dolmans, and the Dutch squad is surely looking for a repeat win.

Yet many are favoring Trek-Segafredo. New for the 2019 season, Trek-Segafredo boasts an impressive roster seasoned veterans. A “dream team,” Wiles called it, yet despite its stacked roster, Trek-Segafredo is still looking for its first Women’s WorldTour win, and they’re hoping to get it in California.

Wiles is joined by former world champion Lizzie Deignan, sprinters Lotta LePisto and Lauretta Hanson, previous Tour of California winner Trixi Worrack, and all-rounder Ruth Winder. Deignan returned to racing in April, seven months after the birth of her first child, and looked to be in great shape.

“We have multiple cards to play so that’s the exciting bit,” Wiles said . “This is always an important race for me. We don’t race in America that often and especially not at the WorldTour level. My entire friends and family come out to watch so it’s a pretty special race to me,” said Wiles.

Plus, she’s well acquainted with Mt. Baldy already.

“I love Baldy,” she said. “The beginning is the old San Dimas uphill TT, that I used to love.”

And she’s not the only one.

Always a threat when the roads turn up, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (CCC-Liv) was always intrigued by the Tour of California, but her previous team never made the journey.

“This year with Liv as our bike partner, it was really important to them that we come out and race,” Moolman-Pasio said. “It’s a highlight for the team and for me personally to come over, to connect with our sponsor, and to experience American racing.”

In planning her 2019 season, the South African champion had initially set the Tour of California as her target, but had to adjust her expectations following an unfortunate crash in the Amstel Gold Race. The 33-year-old suffered a compression injury in her lower back and had to forgo a Tour de Yorkshire in order to take time off the bike.

Continuing ahead with the plan to race the women’s Tour of California, Moolman-Pasio made the trek to the United States early in order to get some altitude training in in Boulder, Colorado.

“There was a question mark whether I’d come at all to the States or whether I would have to cancel,” Moolman-Pasio said. “I’ve just had to take it day by day and I must say things have been really progressing well and in a positive direction. I am in good spirits, things are going really well over the past couple of days, and I’m hoping to be able to be a real contender especially on the Mt. Baldy stage.”

Another climber to watch out for will be Amstel Gold winner, Kasia Niewiadoma. Third in the overall last year, Niewiadoma, too, has been spending time in Colorado, and will be getting plenty of support by her Canyon-SRAM teammates like Tiffany Cromwell and Alexis Ryan.

Alexis Ryan will also be looking for stage victories, especially in Ventura, where she and her sister, Team Tibco’s Kendall Ryan, grew up. Kendall Ryan will be equally motivated to win that opening stage. She got her first WorldTour win in Elk Grove last year, and now her image can be seen some 40 feet off the ground, on roadside billboards throughout the town.

The Tour of California offers domestic teams a rare chance to race against the world’s best without having to travel to Europe. And in years past, the race has been a tremendous showcasing for American teams and the depth of talent there is here.

The American Hagens-Berman Supermint team for example brought the excitement in the 2018 edition, with brave solo efforts and aggressive riding throughout the tour. Californian Jessica Cerra is likely to attack on the Mt. Baldy stage.

Likewise, team Rally-UHC is another American team to watch.

“It’s really fun having a WorldTour event in America. There is a lot of hype around it so that’s exciting to be part of,” said Heidi Franz, fresh off her first pro win at the Tour de Gila and a first-timer at the Tour of California.

“After racing in Europe a couple of times last year, I learned that I really enjoy that style of racing. It’s very different and I think in California it will be mixed. It could be wild at times, and it will have some of the demands of European racing, but mostly I think it will be a really, really hard and exciting race.”