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The Amgen Tour of California released its route on Thursday, and the 2019 edition serves up plenty of climbs and sprints, and not a single individual time trial. One topographical feature looks destined to crown the winner of both the seven-day men’s race and the three-day women’s event: Mt. Baldy. Organizers are touting this route “the most demanding” in the race’s 14-year history, due to the route’s impressive vertical gain and two punishing mountain stages. Of course, climbs aren’t the only thing we’ve got our eyes on for the 2019 edition. There are zany punchy climbs, hilly unpredictable days, and a field expected to be packed with some of the fastest riders on the planet.
Below are five takeaways from this year’s race, based on the route and anticipated start list:
1. The main event is Peter Sagan vs. Fernando Gaviria
For all of the noise around the course’s two climbing stages, make no mistake: The 2019 Tour of California is again a race for the sprinters. Four of seven stages are likely to end in bunch kicks, with the lumpy third stage to Morgan Hill offering a potential fifth sprint (unless Toms Skujins does what he does best). This plethora of sprint stages further cements the Tour of California as cycling’s unofficial warm-up race for the world’s top sprinters and sprint trains. Over the past three editions, we’ve steadily seen more WorldTour sprint teams iron out their lead-out trains at California. Two years ago Quick-Step used the race to prepare Marcel Kittel for his five-stage haul at the Tour de France. Last year it was Fernando Gaviria who dominated the flat stages. So you can bet that Gaviria, Kittel, Mark Cavendish, and the other fast men will be back. This year, I have my eyes on the ongoing sprint battle between Gaviria and Sagan, since several stages offer painful climbs close to the finish to make things interesting.
2. The women’s race finally climbs an HC
Since its origin in 2015, the Tour of California women’s stage race (previous editions featured a time trial and circuit race) has always included challenging climbs and punchy finishes, most notably the painful uphill drag to Heavenly ski resort in South Lake Tahoe. But the race has never featured one of the state’s famed hors categorie summit finishes in the route, such as Mt. Diablo, Gibraltar Road, or Mt. Baldy. That tradition changes in 2019 as the second stage of the women’s race finishes atop Mt. Baldy after climbing up Glendora Mountain Road. The route is direct and painful, starting in downtown Ontario and heading west to the base of the 4,500-foot climb up Mt. Baldy. The climb averages seven percent for much of the journey, however the final switchbacks at the top have ramps above 20 percent. It’s steep and painful. The inclusion of such a dramatic route follows the trend set by Italy’s Giro Rosa, which regularly includes Italy’s hardest climbs in the route, most recently Monte Zoncolan and the Passo dello Stelvio. Mt. Baldy will cater to the Tour of California’s reigning queen, Katie Hall of Boels-Dolmans, as well as her teammate, world champion Anna van der Breggen. The question is whether the mighty climb will entice the sport’s top climber, Annemiek van Vleuten, to make her Tour of California debut.
3. Mt. Baldy will decide the overall
Southern California’s toughest climb was nearly decisive in its last inclusion in 2017 when Andrew Talansky took the stage win ahead of George Bennett and Rafal Majka. Yet Bennett still needed to blaze a fast individual time trial a day later to take the race overall. There will be no waiting for the final stage this year, as Mt. Baldy presents the only truly decisive feature across the seven-day race in stage 6. The stage is the traditional Mt. Baldy stage, which starts in Ontario and ascends Glendora Mountain Road before tackling the 15 switchbacks to the finish.
Now, the peloton does climb early in the race, facing a very hard stage 2 from Rancho Cordova to South Lake Tahoe. The route includes Carson Pass (8,620 feet), the highest road to ever be used by the race, as well as the tough climb up Luther Pass just before the finish. But the finish line at Heavenly still comes several miles from the base of Luther Pass, and my guess is that even Egan Bernal would require several minutes to keep the chasers at bay. The design means a small group will likely contest the short, punishing climb up to the finish line.
4. A dramatic finish on stage 5
Organizers have included a particularly devilish feature for the finale of the 138-mile stage 5 from Pismo Beach to Ventura. Ferro Drive is a punchy 300-foot climb to a hillside above Ventura, and from the top of the hill, it’s less than five miles to the finish line. At 10 percent, the road is hardly a decisive ramp for a breakaway. However, the extremely narrow nature of the road could create confusion in the group and lead to splits that could jettison some sprinters out the back. I’m not going to say this short hill gives us a breakaway win. But it’s an ideal springboard for a will-they-or-won’t-they chase that is definitely one to watch.