Course Preview: Amgen Tour serves up stiff course for 8th edition

The Amgen Tour peloton will roll out on a route that should keep the racing interesting all the way to Mount Diablo

The Amgen Tour of California is set to roll off its eight edition on Sunday, May 12, and while the 2013 route doesn’t offer up back-to-back mountain stages like a year ago, a tough time trial and summit finish pack a one-two punch late in the race.

There are changes in store for this year’s Amgen Tour, among them a south-to-north route, the ascent of Mount Diablo, and the absence of one of the race’s champions. Organizers hope the route changes make it the most competitive Amgen Tour on record. A mountaintop finish on Mount Diablo and a Golden Gate Bridge crossing highlight the eight-day, 750-mile race, which starts in Escondido and finishes in Santa Rosa.

Jim Birrell, race director, and Kristin Bachochin, executive director of the race and senior vice president of AEG Sports, said in February that the new route would lead to tighter racing and showcase the state’s economic centers.

“The overall composition changes every single day. It’s definitely the most competitive route in the Amgen Tour of California,” Bachochin said. “The great thing about the state of California? There are so many different areas to choose from. What is challenging for us sometimes is that we only have eight days to work with.”

The race starts in Escondido on Sunday, an area that in 2009 saw the largest crowds in race history.

“First of all, we’re extremely excited about starting in the south and heading up north. I think the design has increased the chances of seeing the lead change multiple times through those eight days,” Birrell said.

The overall will be contested to the north, and established in a time trial with a 1.7-mile climb to the finish.

“These riders will have a moment of truth,” Birrell said.

The queen stage comes on stage 7, from Livermore to Mount Diablo, and finishes a day later with the run from San Francisco to Santa Rosa.

The event will be missing one of its champions and ambassadors when it rolls out of Southern California. Levi Leipheimer, who lives in Santa Rosa, was caught up in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency investigation of Lance Armstrong and admitted doping during his career. His team, Omega Pharma-Quick Step, sacked him shortly thereafter, and the three-time Amgen Tour champ (2007-09) finds himself without a team.

“Levi, yeah, has been a participant in our race every singe year, and who knows what’s going to happen?” Bachochin said.

In years past, more than two million people have watched the race along the California roads.

Stage 1, May 12, Rancho Bernardo to Escondido, 102.7 miles: Race organizers wasted no time in pointing the 2013 route upward, as the first climb starts less than 12 miles into the race. The 5.8-mile San Pasqual Valley Road climb averages 3.3 percent and gains 1,030 feet in elevation.

After a short downhill at the summit, the course mainly continues to go up for the next 19 miles or so. Another quick descent is then followed by the second and final climb of the day, up the eastern slope of Palomar Mountain. Measuring 11 miles and averaging 4.5 percent, the long and steady ascent, which gains 2,680 feet in elevation, will be an early test of which climbers came to the race in the best shape.

Fortunately for everyone else, the descent of more than 13 miles ends with 27 miles left in the stage, and the road is mostly flat with a slight downhill tilt at the finish. Expect a bunch sprint that determines who wears the yellow leader’s jersey.

2013 marks the first time in four years the race has swung through San Diego County. When the race’s final stage took in the Palomar climb in 2009, Fränk Schleck won out of a breakaway and Levi Leipheimer secured his third overall title.

Stage 2, May 13, Murrieta to Palm Springs, 124.1 miles: The second stage features another challenging first half of riding. A bumpy opening 31 miles is followed by a brief downhill section, but at mile 50 the road turns upward. The 10.7-mile climb of highway 74 to Idyllwild, also known as Firestation to Mountain Center, averages 4.6 percent and gains 3,562 feet of elevation.

Another three miles of ascending follow the summit of the climb before a brief descent and a short uphill section. From there, a 23-mile descent that starts at 4,984 feet and ends at 266 feet brings the peloton back to near sea level in the Coachella Valley.

The road stays flat until a 3.6-mile climb of Tram Ray takes the riders to the hilltop finish. The ascent averages more than nine percent and should provide the first glimmer of the GC race and an opportunity for the puncheurs like world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale) to battle for the stage.

Stage 3, May 14, Palmdale to Santa Clarita, 110.3 miles: Although this stage is hilly and features two climbs (including one that stretches 22 miles up Lake Hughes Road), a bunch sprint could determine the winner. The day’s long, uphill grind to the final climb should give a number of the pure sprinters trouble, but the 18-mile downhill run-in to the finish is almost sure to deliver a mass gallop.

Five-time Amgen Tour stage winner J.J. Haedo (Jamis-Sutter Home) should be in the mix here, along with riders like Gianni Meersman (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Sagan.

Stage 4, May 15, Santa Clarita to Santa Barbara, 83.6 miles: The race turns west and heads to the Pacific Ocean during stage 4, a route that’s anything but flat. The opening 33 miles are, for the most part, downhill — aside from a few small bumps along the way.

The course turns upward at mile 33, climbing from 262 feet above sea level to 1,568 feet over a span of more than eight miles. A sharp, twisty descent follows, and then more bumps — and a climb of the Casitas Pass, a Cat. 3 ascent — are next. Casitas Pass measures 1.8 miles and carries an average gradient of 5.7 percent. A series of rollers closes out the stage. The stage is a reversal of the leg won by Cannondale’s Peter Sagan in 2012.

Stage 5, May 15, Santa Barbara to Avila Beach, 115.4 miles: This is a day for the sprinters. After what could be a difficult ascent of the San Marcos Pass in the opening miles of the race, the peloton will quickly plunge into the Lake Cachuma Recreation Area, where it will most likely regroup.

Another climb follows, but it’s not as steep, After that, the course heads downhill as the race continues north up the California coast. A few small hills dot the second half of the course but for the most part, it’s either flat or slightly downhill.

The finishing area in Avila Beach should be interesting. There’s a narrow left turn 300 meters before the finish, and the last 200m are a dead sprint ending in a slight uphill push. Teams will organize their leadout trains in the miles leading into the seaside town, and the push to the final corner will be key. Whichever team sees its colors on the front at the 300-meter mark is likely to see them on the podium afterward.

Stage 6, May 17, San Jose (ITT), 19.6 miles: The 2013 route will use the same time trial course we saw in 2006, the first year of the race. With a brutal closing mile, the course is the most difficult TT featured in the race’s eight editions.

Almost immediately after rolling off the starting ramp, riders will encounter a climb of 0.7 miles that averages 6.9 percent. Three more short hills and three gradual descents will take them along a picturesque course dotted with golf courses and lakes.

The real test, however, will occur in the final 1.7 miles of the course. After making a final right turn, the course pitches sharply upward on Metcalf Road. The climb features several sections of more than 10-percent gradient, and averages 10.3 percent, as it gains 942 feet in elevation.

After stage 2’s uphill finish, this will be the first big test for the GC hopefuls. Men like Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) will have to meter their efforts over the opening 18 miles perfectly; going too deep will show in tens of seconds in the finale, but backing off too much will leave time gaps and questions.

Stage 7, May 18, Livermore to Mount Diablo, 91.4 miles: Stage 7 is the beast of the 2013 Amgen Tour of California. With 10,384 feet of climbing and a finish on the punishing ascent of Mount Diablo, the race will most likely be won and lost on this day.

The Morgan Territory Road climb starts the trio at mile 5, and it will last 4.2 miles and gain 1,401 feet of elevation, while averaging 6.3 percent. Climb No. 2, on the eastern slope of Patterson Pass, begins at mile 48 and gains 1,150 feet over 3.9 miles at an average of 5.4 percent.

The brutal Mount Diablo climb stretches 10.8 miles and takes the field 3,455 feet to the sky at an average of 5.7 percent. The good news, at least for fans at the summit and for those watching on TV, is that the mountain offers stunning views of California — on a clear day, visibility is almost 200 miles. Riders won’t be taking in the landscape, however, and as Mount Baldy did each of the last two years, so too will Diablo crown the Amgen Tour’s champion.

Stage 8, May 19, San Francisco to Santa Rosa, 81.6 miles: The stage 8 route passes over the Golden Gate Bridge before heading up the Pacific coast in what will be a picturesque finale to the 2013 race.

The bridge will be closed to traffic for just the third time since 1960 — the first time was in 1960 for French President Charles de Gaulle, and the second occurrence was in 2009 for the Amgen Tour of California.

Barring any major problems, there most likely will not be a change in the GC on this day; the race winner will be decided during stage 7. However, an exciting finish in Santa Rosa is sure to unfold on the road.

The narrow climb of Occidental Road is too far from the finish to make a lasting difference, but if the right mix of opportunists without a shot at the GC make a move here, it could stay away. BMC Racing will be pushing into its hometown and would certainly like to deliver a win; a bunch finish on this early-morning stage is the most likely scenario with 12 highway miles of gradual rise leading to the finish.