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Leipheimer predicts a stage 4 sprint — can Cavendish strike again at the Amgen Tour of California?

After two tough stages with categorized climbs close to the finish line, on Wednesday the Amgen Tour of California peloton will embark on a day that looks, on paper, reserved for the sprinters.

After two tough stages with categorized climbs close to the finish line, on Wednesday the Amgen Tour of California peloton will embark on a day that looks, on paper, reserved for the sprinters.

The 121.5-mile stage 4 route, from San Jose to Modesto, delivers two tough climbs — the steep opening climb over Sierra Road, and the almost 30-mile grind up and over Mines Road.

However unlike the stages into Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz, stage 4 is almost entirely downhill for the final 50 miles.

Last year the Amgen Tour also offered a stage from San Jose to Modesto. However this year’s route is longer and tougher, with more climbing. Riders begin the day with the steep climb up Sierra Road, which was, in years past, used as the final climb on stages ending in San Jose. It was there in 2008 that Levi Leipheimer went clear over the top with Robert Gesink; the pair held off a stacked chase group by 19 seconds, with Gesink winning the stage and Leipheimer taking the leader’s jersey.

As with the 2009 stage, the peloton now ascends the four-mile Sierra Road climb early on the stage — this year in the first five miles.

After completing the Sierra Road climb, the riders will face fast and flat roads full of twists and turns — Calaveras Road alone has more than 40 switchbacks — before visiting downtown Livermore for the first time for an intermediate sprint.

A quick bite in the feed zone is followed by the long, twisting slog up Mines Road. Riders should remember not to be fooled by the KOM on Mines Road, as it comes at mile 44, a full 26 miles before the real climbing ends.

After a long descent into Patterson, and a second intermediate sprint at mile 96, it’s a flat 25-mile run-in to Modesto.

Last year’s winner in Modesto, Cervélo’s Thor Hushovd, was scheduled to race in California, but broke his collarbone on a training ride a week before the race, when he swerved to avoid a young girl and crashed.

Instead, all eyes will be on HTC-Columbia’s Mark Cavendish, to see if he can repeat his convincing stage 1 win in Sacramento.

Blast from the past
Blast from the past

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 is referring to all week for insider analysis. Here’s what they had to say:

Levi Leipheimer (USA), RadioShack:
Like most stages, with this one they are adding a little climbing. When we start to talk about stages 6, 7 and 8, that will make a difference, all that climbing over the week. I’d say most likely this is going to be a field sprint, although we’re going pretty far up the backside of Mount Hamilton. That adds additional climbing. Last year we did Paterson, which was just a bump compared to that. It’s another stage to tire the legs out a bit and widen the gap between who is fit and who is not … Sierra Road is brutal. I’ll never forget first time I did recon on it, in December 2005. I thought, whoa, this is the real deal, this is going to matter. Unfortunately it was always such a long way to the finish. It’s tough, and riders fear it. The start is a little less aggressive by everybody, but there is a small group of a few guys that are good enough climbers that really want to get in the break, and there are going to go for it. We are going to come over the top in a few groups, and the sprinters won’t be there, but they’ll come back. And I think by the finish it will be a field sprint.

Dave Zabriskie (USA), Garmin-Transitions:
With Sierra Road in the beginning, you have to be a pretty strong guy to create the breakaway. There’s no way to get over that thing going easy. It’s a very, very hard climb, especially at the beginning of the stage. It’s not going to be a gigantic group getting away, because there aren’t that many people who can give it that much stick over the climb. Hopefully there are enough guys to get away and make space and stay away until Modesto; then we’ll see what Cav’s team can do.

Rory Sutherland (Australia), UnitedHealthcare-Maxxis:
Stage 4 of the Tour of California is generally a stage for the sprinters, but a bit different. Normally when you say that it’s a big, long, flat stage, but this year, and last year, we start straight up Sierra Road. That’s a pretty hellish climb. Last year it blew the field to pieces, but it all kind of regrouped after that. It definitely takes the sting out of people’s legs, for sure. I can’t really remember many stages of any tour I’ve ever done that start with a climb then flatten out at the end; it’s normally the other way around. Definitely one for the sprinters. There could be a bit of wind going into Modesto, it’s big and open in the valley there, so it will be interesting to see what comes out there.

Hushovd in 2009
Hushovd in 2009

Mike Friedman (USA), Jelly Belly:
It depends how big the break is. I mean, in Missouri a couple years ago there was a break of like 22 guys, and it stayed away and set the GC for the whole race. You have that first wall that goes up to 2000 feet; it’s hard to say what will happen on that, it’s right at the beginning of the stage, nobody’s warmed up, so there will probably be an attack. But if there’s going to be any splitting, any solid break, it will be over the second long, gradual climb. It’s 30 miles long, so if a team takes control and tries to drill it on a certain section and create a gap it might go. And if it goes, that might be another day where the GC changes. GC can be set one day and totally change the next day, which is what makes cycling so interesting. That’s definitely a big climb, and again it’s a long way to the finish, but if it’s 20 guys it will probably go.

Ben Day (Australia), Fly V Australia:
Sierra Road has been a classic climb in the Tour of California. It was the decisive stage in the early editions of the race. In the last few years the race has gotten so hard that it’s kind of paled in comparison. Having it so early in the stage, Sierra Road will be a very hard way to start. But through the valley, on the other side of the race, it’s going to all come back together. Some longer climbs coming into the finish, and then the big, flat run-in to the finish in Modesto. I believe it’s going to be a bunch sprint once again.

These top sprinters in the world are very decent climbers, and they have some very strong teams around them. The GC is going to be established a little bit, but no GC team has any need to control it from Sierra Road all the way to the finish.  It’s a great stage for Fly V Australia, again with an opportunity for a breakaway. This is where we’ll want to send some guys who are climbing well but can sprint well out of a breakaway. And then if it comes into a bunch kick, once again we’ve got Aaron Kemps and Johnny Cantwell to have a good finish for us. We actually have more than two top sprinters on Fly-V Australia. We have Kempsy, Bernie is not a slouch himself. Charles Dionne is a very fast rider too; in certain terrain Charles Dionne is untouchable.

The thing is, with all of our sprinters, they all have slightly different attributes, and I don’t want to give too much away about that, but that really decides for us who we’re going to use for a sprint. Looking at the course profile, looking at those final 3k, and really working out the best train that we can have in front of these guys, and who it’s going to be tailor made for.