Amgen Tour stages, teams taking shape

Details of the 2011 Amgen Tour of California stage routes and participating teams are beginning to take shape. Most notably, VeloNews has learned, the race will feature two summit finishes, including one atop San José’s steep Sierra Road climb on stage 4.

2008 Tour of California, Sierra Road. Photo: Casey B. Gibson
2008 Tour of California, Sierra Road. Photo: Casey B. Gibson
Details of the 2011 Amgen Tour of California stage routes and participating teams are beginning to take shape. Most notably, VeloNews has learned, the race will feature two summit finishes, including one atop San José’s steep Sierra Road climb on stage 4.

In previous years, the Sierra Road climb has been used for stages finishing in San José’s downtown area, about 15 miles from the summit of Sierra Road.

Sources with knowledge of this year’s route have confirmed that stage 4 will finish atop Sierra Road, giving the race a second summit finish along with stage 7 atop Mt. Baldy.

Steven Brewster, director of Strategic Outreach and Alliances for the San José Office of Economic Development, referred questions about the stage finish to AEG Sports, owners of the Amgen Tour of California.

AEG Sports president Andrew Messick would not comment specifically on the San José stage finish, adding that route details of the May 15-22 race will be announced next week. He did, however, disclose several new details of the 2011 route, including the route for stage 5, from Seaside to Paso Robles.

“What’s exciting about the route is that there appear to be three for sprinters, two for the climbers and one for the time trial specialists,” Messick said. “Stages 2, 3, and 8 are all likely field sprints, with flat finishing circuits in all three stages. We may have two stages that can be won by climbers, and one that will be won by a TT specialist, so there’s a real variety in terms of who wins stages.”

Stage details

Messick said he expects the opening stage’s uphill sprint finish at Northstar will be won “by a different kind of rider, a Thor Hushovd-type of sprinter, or a classics guy.”

Following likely field sprints on stages 2 and 3, the route travels to San José. Stage 4 begins with climbs over Mines Road and Mt. Hamilton that are likely to soften the bunch, and finishing atop Sierra Road will provide the race’s first decisive uphill finish. The elevation gain on Sierra Road is severe, ascending 1800 feet in 3.5 miles, with an average gradient of 10-percent and a maximum gradient of 25-percent.

By comparison, stage 7 travels from Claremont to Mt. Baldy, delivering an elevation gain of almost 10,000 vertical feet in less than 100 miles; the last 4.5 miles will feature 18 switchbacks and an average gradient of 10-percent.

“I see three opportunities for major shakeups on the GC,” Messick said. “In previous years we’ve had hilly stages, but there were big groups finishing together. Atop Mt. Baldy we could have a one-minute gap between the first elite GC guy and the last guy. It could be similar on another stage, and then of course there’s the time trial.”

Messick said the podium that may be the hardest to predict is that of stage 5, which travels 144 miles, south down Highway 101 from Seaside, along the Big Sur coast to Cambria, with a tough climb over Santa Rosa Creek Road, 15 miles from the finish line, followed by a descent into Paso Robles.

“Santa Rosa Creek Road is hard, with a few 20-percent plus pitches,” Messick said. “It’s narrow, and it can be windy. It’s not going to be a field sprint. It’s a 144-mile stage, and it ends with a climb from the ocean over the Santa Lucia Mountains. There might be a bunch of guys still there, certainly the main GC riders, but I don’t think it will be completely together. Peter Sagan might make it, maybe George Hincapie… maybe Thor Hushovd. It’s a beautiful, remote climb, and it’s hard.”

Following a difficult stage 5, the GC riders and TT specialists will tackle the same 15-mile Solvang time-trial course used at the Amgen Tour in years past; most recently, in 2009, won by Levi Leipheimer.

“The time trial will be the same route as in 2009,” Messick said. “This route is long and it’s hard at the end of a hard week of racing. The first three stages are each over 120 miles. We will have shorter stages — both mountain stages are in the low to mid 80-miles, not long, but hard. I had been pushing for a longer time trial, but (competition director) Kevin Livingston and the technical guys argued persuasively not to do that.”

Messick said that sections of the final leg for stage 7, from Baldy Village to the Mt. Baldy Ski Area, had washed away during Southern California’s record December rainfall, but added that the road was quickly repaired and is open. “We don’t have any concerns about that,” he said, adding that the approximately 85-mile route from Claremont to Mt. Baldy will be traveled by cycling enthusiasts as part of this year’s Étape du California, on May 7. The route will cover some of the most iconic sections of road in the San Gabriel Mountains, including Glendora Mountain Road, Glendora Ridge Road, and the sharp switchbacks up to the Mt. Baldy Ski Area.

The final stage, from Santa Clarita to Thousand Oaks, will not offer the same thrilling fireworks as last year’s Thousand Oaks circuit race, with its steep climb up Mulholland Highway before finishing in Westlake. Instead, the race will finish near the Amgen campus in Thousand Oaks and will likely be a field sprint.

Riders expected

While the full roster of teams expected at this year’s race has not yet been finalized, Messick acknowledge that several teams are all-but guaranteed invitations.

Team Sky, the new home of 2010 overall winner Michael Rogers, will attend the race, as will RadioShack, team of Lance Armstrong and three-time California champion Levi Leipheimer.

Garmin-Cervélo, home of three-time second-place finisher Dave Zabriskie, will be in California; expect to see Zabriskie, Hushovd, Christian Vande Velde and Tom Danielson. Other top teams expected include Leopard-Trek, with Andy Schleck; BMC Racing, with George Hincapie and Taylor Phinney; and HTC-Highroad, with Mark Cavendish and Tejay Van Garderen.

As for Armstrong, who has hinted that California might be his final pro race, Messick couldn’t say.

“I know this is the ‘A race’ for RadioShack,” Messick said. “I think they will be bringing the best team they can. The last conversation we had with Lance was before Christmas, and there was no certainty he would do anything other than Tour Down Under. I think his group, and the RadioShack guys, want him to do the Amgen Tour of California. We are hopeful. I don’t think anyone, including Lance, knows his race schedule after the Tour Down Under. But I think American cycling fans would love an opportunity to say goodbye to him.”

Messick added that with or without Armstrong, RadioShack has several riders capable of winning this year’s race. “When you look at RadioShack, you can make a strong case for Levi, but also for Chris Horner. He was so much closer than anyone realized to winning it all last year. (Horner finished fourth overall, 1:04 behind Rogers.) I think Chris believes he has another super strong performance in him, and even though he’s 39, last year’s Tour de France demonstrated he can still climb and time trial very well.”

With riders such as Armstrong, Horner, Leipheimer and Hincapie are at the tail-end of their careers, Messick said this year’s Amgen Tour of California could well mark the changing of the guard, as talented young riders such as, Taylor Phinney, van Garderen and Sagan are all potential stage winners.

“I think this year’s race is a real opportunity to showcase the next generation of talent,” Messick said. “We will have several exceptionally talented guys in their early 20s. These are guys who I expect to make a tremendous impact on our sport for a long time, and it’s great to introduce them to America through our race. And when you think about having the generation of Lance, Horner, Levi, George and Christian racing alongside these guys who are 20, 21 years old, with so much potential, it’s cool to see.”

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Sunday, May 15 1 South Lake Tahoe to Northstar at Tahoe Resort 122 miles with an uphill sprint finish
Monday, May 16 2 North Lake Tahoe to Sacramento 136 miles, likely field sprint
Tuesday, May 17 3 Auburn to Modesto 120 miles, likely field sprint
Wednesday, May 18 4 Livermore to San José Three KOMs with summit finish atop Sierra Road; opportunity for GC shake-up
Thursday, May 19 5 Seaside to Paso Robles 144 miles with tough Santa Rosa Creek Road climb 15 miles from finish
Friday, May 20 6 Solvang 15-mile time trial; opportunity for GC shake-up
Saturday, May 21 7 Claremont to Mt. Baldy Approximately 85 miles; summit finish; opportunity for GC shake-up
Sunday, May 22 8 Santa Clarita to Thousand Oaks Likely field sprint