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Tour of California: How wide American roads shape the race

The Tour of California's wide roadways have an enormous impact on the way that riders tackle the race

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SACRAMENTO, California (VN) — Within the WorldTour peloton, the Amgen Tour of California holds a reputation for sunshine, soaring climbs and wide, straight roads.

Perhaps more than any other feature, it’s these spacious American highways and backroads that separate California from the European WorldTour races. In European races, the 200-rider peloton must squeeze through narrow, winding lanes that are often no wider than an American sidewalk. Riders can spend dozens of kilometers fighting through the tight pack to get to the front.

In California, by contrast, the broad roadways allow riders to ride from the back to the front of the group with relative ease. This one difference has an enormous impact on each team’s strategy and each rider’s physical output throughout the seven-day race.

“It’s like chalk and cheese, really,” said Luke Rowe (Team Ineos), when asked to compare the California race to events in Europe. “There’s less of a fight for position. In fact, you can sit in the back of the peloton stress-free.”

Of course, like all things in cycling, there is nuance to racing on these wide California roads. I recently spoke with riders to better understand the fine details. Here’s what I found out:

Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images for AEG

Any position will do

The Amgen Tour of California can, at times, seem like a controlled procession. A breakaway goes early, teams chase and make the catch, and then the field lines up for a sprint. Or, the peloton rolls along until it reaches a climb, at which point the strongest riders surge to the front.

By contrast, the narrow roads in Europe create a more complex game. Riders bash elbows in effort to stay near the front, and memorize a race’s endless turns and twists so as to be prepared for the climbs and other decisive sections.

“In [Europe] you have to know how the roads fit together—it’s the narrow downhill that leads to a village that leads into another road and so on,” says Charly Wegelius, sport director at EF Education First. “Here, the puzzle of positioning is removed, so it’s one less thing to be concerned about.”

Because of this difference, it’s not uncommon to see marquee teams at the Tour of California rolling along in the middle or back half of the peloton to enjoy the draft. Whichever team holds the leader’s jersey often rides the front, alongside riders from sprint teams. There’s less fear of crashes due to the straight roads, and the road’s width means riders can usually find a draft.

“In Europe we’re always riding on the front, or second wheel, and that is a major priority for us,” said Owain Doull (Team Ineos). “That’s not the case here. It’s better for us to be further back, because the road is so much bigger the group is bunched up.”

Here’s the thing: these riders are resting their legs for each stage’s decisive feature, be it a technical sprint to the line or a categorized climb. And the extra rest allows riders to put more energy into these decisive moments of the race. During Sunday’s road stage in Sacramento, the peloton whipped the pace up from a crawl to 40 mph for the final 32 miles.

“I think [the wide roads] lead to faster finales because people are resting,” Rowe said. “If you spend all day riding near the front you won’t have the legs for the final.”

Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images for AEG

A fitness test

There are a handful of European tactics that rarely work on the wide American roads. Slowing the pace during an attack is a futile effort, since the peloton can simply ride around the blocking riders. Attacking on descents rarely works—Taylor Phinney‘s 2014 stage victory into Santa Barbara was a rare caveat to the rule. And even trying to break the group up in the wind rarely works, since the wide roads provide opportunities to claw back on.

“I never see attacks on the downhills work,” says Michael Schar (CCC Team). “And echelons are barely seen.”

Instead, racing in California tends to be a fitness test where, as Schar said, “the best condition wins.”

And that’s where the Amgen Tour of California finds its own spot within WorldTour racing. The effort to compete here is all about bottling one’s energy and then releasing it at the decisive moment, be it the climb to Mt. Baldy or the sprint in downtown Sacramento.

Rather than memorize the road’s twists and turns, riders instead focus on eating and drinking and using as little energy as possible in the peloton. Save the matches, and then burn them all at once on the climb or sprint.

“You’re at the mercy of the terrain a lot more over here,” said Lawson Craddock (EF Education First).

That dynamic may be starting to change, however. In European races, the toughest fight often comes in the lead-up to a decisive section. Kiel Reijnen (Trek-Segafredo) says a similar fight now occurs in the kilometers before the finishing circuits in downtown Sacramento.

“The last few years the battle to get onto the circuit has been harder than the actual circuit,” Reijnen said. “Once you get here it actually is easier.”

All of the riders agreed, however, that the total effort expelled on the wide California roads is equal to what is required at a European road race. Perhaps more of that effort is expelled on one or two climbs, rather than throughout the entire stage. In the end, everyone rides home tired.

“You’re looking at the computer and seeing the same numbers, but the emphasis is on the climb or the finishing circuit, rather than the entire race,” Reijnen said. “It’s still hard.”