Will California altitude favor American women in Amgen Tour?

The Amgen Women's Tour of California presents a unique challenge to some of the world's top cyclists: high altitude.

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, California (VN) — There’s one thing on everyone’s mind at the Amgen Women’s Tour of California this week: altitude. Two of the race’s four stages start and finish in South Lake Tahoe, which sits at a breathtaking 6,237 feet above sea level. During stage 2, racers will crest the 7,740-foot summit of Luther Pass after a steep 6.6 kilometers of climbing with an average 6 percent gradient.

The extreme altitude has many racers anxious while others welcome the added challenge. “Altitude is usually a pretty big hit to the Europeans,” said UnitedHeathcare’s Tayler Wiles before the race. “So it’s a pretty good advantage for us.”

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Most American riders agreed that the altitude will be an advantage. Europeans don’t often have a chance to race and train in these conditions, while many of the Americans live at altitude in places like Big Bear, California or Colorado. The Americans even have multiple opportunities to race at these heights throughout the season.

Most recently on the U.S. domestic calendar, Tour of the Gila, based in Silver City, New Mexico, began at an elevation of 5,895 feet. Wiles won the race, clearly unfazed by the altitude. Team Tibco’s Lex Albrecht also conquered the conditions, winning a stage and then acclimating further to high altitude with a Big Bear training block before heading to Tahoe. “The result from the Gila gave me confidence coming into the Tour of California,” she said. “That gives our team a bit of confidence that we have an advantage on the Euros.”

Despite the American confidence buzzing around Lake Tahoe, the Europeans aren’t going to give in so easily. Boels-Dolmans’s Anna van der Breggen admitted she’d never raced at altitude like this but seemed perfectly relaxed about the challenge. She went on to praise the Lake Tahoe scenery. “In Holland, I don’t have views like that,” she said. “[On my ride] I was looking for bears and didn’t see any. But just knowing they are there was enough.”

Pressed further about the altitude and whether she was breathing hard after climbing a set of stairs, the Olympic gold medalist smiled and said, “No, I’m more of a slow climber on the stairs.” Clearly, she’s not giving in to the hype.

The Amgen Tour of California women’s race will likely be decided in the hilly 108-kilometer course on Friday that tackles three significant climbs. Altitude will certainly play a factor. But just how much of a difference it will make is unclear. “We’ll take each stage day by day and see what we can do,” said Coryn Rivera (Sunweb) who recently returned from a successful spring campaign in Europe. “Altitude is definitely another challenge to racing here in the United States.”