Part of the Amgen Tour of California’s move from February was to allow race organizers a chance to use the state’s mountains, and Friday’s stage into Big Bear is the prime example of the result. Though it’s not a true summit finish, the 135-mile stretch from Palmdale is the closest thing this race offers to a grand tour stage, as the course dishes up over 12,000 feet of climbing, making it the most difficult stage in the five-year history of the race.
After a five-mile neutral section heading south on Sierra Road, the route makes a left turn onto Angeles Forest Highway. Facing the riders is the imposing San Gabriel mountain range, and within a few miles the first of seven KOMs will be crested. Following a blistering descent from Mill Creek Summit, the route turns to Upper Big Tujunga and then onto Angeles Crest Highway.
The race will climb to a high point of nearly 8,000 feet as it rolls along the Angeles Crest Highway. Then, there is a brief respite as they descend to Wrightwood and over to Highway 138. The route again ascends as it passes through Crestline and Lake Arrowhead, as the cyclists take to the “Rim of the World” highway.
Entering the Big Bear area, the riders will take the northern route around Big Bear Lake and then tackle the last rise to the finish at a more than 7,000-foot elevation at the Snow Summit ski area for the Amgen Tour of California’s first-ever alpine finish.
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 has referred to all week for insider analysis. Here’s what they had to say:
Levi Leipheimer (USA), RadioShack:
It’s definitely not a summit finish. It’s far from that. I think the chance that someone could win the Tour of California on this stage is very low. It could become tactical, because the group is small, and it gets a little out of control with the attacks going. But we don’t have that one stage where it’s like, ‘hey, this is the climb where spectators will come out in droves and line the climb because there is no doubt that this is where it’s going to go down, this is where it’s going to blow up, this is where it’s every man for himself.’ That’s not going to happen here; I’ve ridden it several times. That said, it’s a hard day. It’s a long day, it’s windy. It’s all at altitude, so it’s going to take a toll. But the climb up to Big Bear is big chain ring, and people will be getting a lot of draft. It’s a long day in the saddle, and people are going to be feeling it the next day in Los Angeles.
Dave Zabriskie (USA), Garmin-Transitions:
I think Big Bear will be pretty decisive. Even if you look at the profile and think it’s not that hard. … The last three days of the race, starting with this stage, are going to be some pain in the legs. It’s 213km, climbing all day, things can happen at the end of a race like that. If you don’t eat enough. … All day long you need to be stuffing your face. You really blow through energy on days like that. Most likely the GC guys will be together on top, and have a sprint out. I don’t think there’s going to be anyone going solo on the mountain, unless they’re feeling amazing.
Rory Sutherland (Australia), UnitedHealthcare-Maxxis:
Stage 6 is probably the queen stage of the race. They’re searching for a mountaintop finish, and this is probably as close as we’re going to get. It’s a hard stage; it’s really hard. You have two big mountain ranges to go over, one straight out of the gate, straight up a mountain from Palmdale. You drop down again and you start climbing up towards big bear. I rode this one in March and it just didn’t seem to end. It’s not steep, there’s not one specific climb, it just seems to be climbing all day long. It’s going to be a race of attrition. I don’t really want to predict if it’s going to be a small group or a big group, it all depends on how the race is actually raced; if it’s controlled, or if it’s really raced and attacked. Definitely in the last 40 or 50 kilometers people are just going to be popping straight off the back from exhaustion, because it’s just constantly on the pedals the whole day. You crest the last mountain at 20k to go and it’s basically pancake flat all the way to the finish around the lake. Which is good and bad; I don’t think you can recover from what you’ve just done, you’re already 200km into a hard stage. The finish is slightly uphill; a long straight sprint for whatever group comes to the line. It’s a stage for someone like Hincapie. You get rid of a lot of the sprinters, a lot of the fast guys, and you’re just sprinting against the climbers so … it’ll be a pretty fun stage, but exhausting all the same.
Mike Friedman (USA), Jelly Belly:
Seven KOM’s. That’s it. Seven KOM’s. And 135 miles. What more is there to say? It’s going to be a hell of a day, and it’s going to be a leg-breaker. That day is just going to blow everything apart, and people are just going to hope to make time cut. It’s the queen stage; bottom line, people are hoping to make time cut that day.
Ben Day (Australia), Fly V Australia:
We reconned this course, but couldn’t do the whole thing… I don’t believe this stage is going to be terribly decisive in terms of shuffling the top of the GC, but it should get rid of a few contenders. It’s really going to test people’s ability to ride 217k … there’s probably over 100k of climbing in this stage, and sitting on the wheel isn’t going to be a whole lot different than sitting on the front. It’s going to be really hard work; people are going to have to stay well hydrated and keep their energy levels up by eating a lot of food. I believe we’re going to see a fairly large group, maybe 15 or 20 guys, come over the top of the final climb. Then it’s a fairly flat run-in to the finish. I didn’t actually see the finish, but I think there might be a little pinch there that might cause some time gaps. But I don’t think we’re going to see any massive Levi Leipheimer attacks or anything like that, where they’re coming in solo. It’s going to be important for the GC leader to have a very strong team around him, to keep them wheel protected. The climbs are long, but aren’t necessarily steep. So it will just be about being on the wheel and being patient. It will be a day for patience, for sure.