Preview: Tour of California’s balanced route offers chances for everyone

The men's Amgen Tour of California starts Sunday in Sacramento and features both climbs and sprints along the way to the Pasadena finale.

The Amgen Tour of California is back for its first year as a WorldTour event with a sprint-heavy but difficult route and a field full of fast finishers.

The race will roll due south, starting Sunday in Sacramento and finishing in Pasadena seven days later. The general classification is likely to be decided within a pair of stages near the end of the week. First is the assault on Mt. Baldy, followed by an oxygen-deprived time trial at altitude in Big Bear Lake. The overall standings at California are always tight, guaranteeing that the race could be won — or lost — just about anywhere.

The Route

A balanced route awaits the peloton this year. Sprinters will bookend the week, with shots at stages 1, 3, 4 and 7, while general classification riders will focus on the climb to Mt. Baldy on stage 5 and the stage 6 time trial. The breakaway artists will have their chances, too. Stage 2 looks primed for a strong escape, nearly identical to the stage won out of a breakaway by Cannondale-Drapac’s Toms Skuijns in 2015.

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That second stage could prove to be a tricky one for the GC men, too. It begins in Modesto and features six categorized climbs, including the HC climb to Mt. Hamilton, from the hard side, followed by a technical descent and short climb to the finish. Lose contact on Hamilton and your Tour of California could be over.

Stage 5 is the big one, the queen stage. It features more than 12,000 feet of climbing across three major categorized climbs and finishes atop Mt. Baldy after climbing for nearly 50 kilometers. The final 8.1km average 8.4 percent. This is where the Tour of California will be won or lost.

Or will it? The climbers will need to gain time at Mt. Baldy because the time trialists are coming for them. The following stage heads to altitude at Big Bear Lake for a flat, 24km time trial — long enough to make up a small deficit lost the previous day.

The final stage will drop back down into Pasadena and is expected to be another bunch kick.

The Contenders

Andrew Talansky, a Californian, has pointed to his home race as a focus of his early season and an important stepping-stone toward a run at the overall at the Tour de France. Cannondale-Drapac’s GC leader was fourth in 2016 while working for teammate Lawson Craddock and is still riding high after a fifth-place finish at the Vuelta a Espana last fall.

“It’s going to be a tough race with the decisive GC days stacked toward the end,” Talansky said. “That always makes it in favor of real GC riders.”

Talansky won’t find his path to the top easy, though. BMC Racing’s Brent Bookwalter, third last year and the highest-placed rider to return this year, is back and keen to step higher on the podium. Rafael Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), winner of the Tour de France’s polka-dot (best climber) jersey, is well-suited to the decisive Mt. Baldy stage and will have two-time reigning world champion Peter Sagan at his side.

Climbing phenom Lachlan Morton (Dimension Data) is out to prove he’s worthy of his jump back up to a WorldTour squad. “The Tour of California is my big goal for the first half of the season,” he said. “I’m slowly building up for that. With California being a WorldTour race it becomes more important, so the whole team is going to be there this year.”

Sky’s American rider Ian Boswell, 7th in 2015, will be back after a year hiatus and has been handed leadership of his British squad. Kiwi George Bennett (Lotto-NL Jumbo), 7th last year, has been training at altitude in Boulder, Colorado to prepare for his own run at the leader’s jersey. Both have the climbing chops for an assault on Mt. Baldy.

The sprint showdowns have been tempered somewhat by the absence of Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), who is recovering from mononucleosis, and Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), who is out with a concussion.

Stages 1, 3, and 4 all appear to be primed for the sprinters, and there will still be plenty of them sniffing for victory. Sagan is back and hungry for wins after a classics season that left him wanting more. The fastest classics men, including John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) are well-suited to California’s frequently tricky finishes. Elia Viviani (Sky) returns for the first time since 2010 and has a strong squad behind him. And let’s not forget about Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors), cycling’s reigning fastest man. With Cavendish gone, he’ll be the one to beat.