After a year's hiatus, the popular San Francisco to Santa Cruz stage returns to the Amgen Tour of California, bringing with it the Bonny Doon Road climb, which has proven decisive for the overall race classification in the past. The climb comes this time in a less pivotal role coming some 42 miles from the finish in Aptos.
The 120-mile stage 2, which includes about 8,000 feet of climbing, starts under the Golden Gate Bridge and, as before, highlights both the California coast and the redwood forests, but that's where many of the similarities end.
Rather than begin at Ocean Beach, far away from the city center of San Francisco, this year's course will roll out from the Marina Green, not far from Fisherman's Wharf and in the shadows of one of the most famous man-made structures in the world, the Golden Gate Bridge.
Winding up through the Presidio, the race will make its way down Highway 1 straight to Santa Cruz County, rather than twisting up into the redwoods of Tunitas Creek Road as it has in the past.
What makes the finish town unique is that, while City of Santa Cruz put up the money for the race's finish in 2009 and 2010, it declined to submit a proposal for the 2011 edition citing budgetary concerns and a lack of discernible increase in tourist traffic on the day of the race.
Enter Maura Noel, who served as a course marshal in 2009 and 2010 and had a broader vision for the race's impact on the area. "I have always thought it was bigger picture. Television coverage of the race coming down West Cliff Drive into Santa Cruz was so beautiful that day [May 2010]. It was like a Mediterranean setting. How can you not see the appeal as a marketing point to get people to come to this area?" said Noel.
So Noel approached the County of Santa Cruz, rather than the city, with an offer that was hard to refuse. "I proposed to them if I could raise the money, and I named some other projects which followed this model, why wouldn't you support it. And they said 'of course we would.'"
Noel, who is also vice president of the Santa Cruz County Cycling Club, went so far as to provide a guarantee to the county that if there was any budget shortfall, she would make up the difference out of her own personal funds.
With the City out and the County in, the traditional climb up Bonny Doon Road could be included, but the descent from the top of the climb down Empire Grade to the finish was out because it dumps the riders into downtown Santa Cruz.
"They [the race organizers] wanted to do Bonny Doon Road, so their options were all ugly: Felton Empire Road, Alba Road or Jameson Creek Road. They came and drove all three of them, more than once," said Noel.
The organizers decided on Jameson Creek, a steep, twisty 2.4-mile descent which averages 12 percent, but it's not the precipitous descent which is the big news, it is the six miles of rolling terrain from the top of Bonny Doon to the start of the Jameson Creek descent. "I think that will neutralize anything that goes up Bonny Doon," said Jim Gentes a former Cyclo-cross National Champion, founder of Giro helmets and technical advisor to the local organizing committee.
Bissell Pro Cycling Team rider and local resident, Ben Jacques Maynes, who has ridden every edition of the Amgen Tour of California agrees, "What seems like a twisty, windy road to the general public, under controlled race situations, you get both sides of the road, so what used to be a very twisty road straightens out. What used to be a hair-raising descent with traffic becomes no brakes, straight shooting through corners. It is amazing how fast the pack can get through places."
After climbing Bonny Doon and descending Jameson Creek, the next obstacle is Bear Creek Road which comes about 30 miles from the finish and will most likely be where any of the overall contenders will play their hands, if they choose to do so this early in the eight-day race.
The business end of Bear Creek Road is 2.75 miles, which averages eight percent and rolls mostly up then mostly down for several more miles before turning right on Summit Road. "Bear Creek is a tough climb. That's a real climb. I think it will be hard for a few guys, like Levi (Leipheimer) and a couple other guys, to stay away that far from the finish," said Gentes.
The racers will encounter more rolling terrain as they cross the spine of the Santa Cruz Mountains on Summit Road. One of the more obnoxious bumps tops out where Apple Computer co-founder, Steve Wozniak, used to own a lama ranch and farm.
A right turn on San Jose-Soquel Road begins the long descent to the finish at Cabrillo College. The upper four miles of the descent are open and fast where speeds could reach 50+mph. "The downhill on San Jose-Soquel Road is just a blast. They are going to have both lanes. They are going to be going so fast on that," said Gentes.
Because of the difficult, multi-ascent finale, climbs such as Tunitas Creek used in earlier editions of this stage will be bypassed for an almost straight shot from San Francisco down Highway 1 to Bonny Doon Road where 5000 feet of climbing separate the peloton from finish line.
Ben Jacques Maynes summarizes the difficulty of the stage. "I think given the way the whole week was going to play out having kind of an 'intermediate hill' day would play out really nicely. Something where you can have, if the teams played it right, a group of 50-80 show up at the finish line and a couple of good sprinters in there would have a fair chance at having a big bunch kick."
"I think that would showcase Santa Cruz County perfectly. We have a good variety between coastal roads, redwood forests, little cool roads with climbs and descents. There is a lot more to Santa Cruz County and California in general than cruising along Highway 1," said Jacques Maynes.
While the stage will provide both beautiful scenery and exciting racing for the spectators, it remains to be seen if the riders will be able to enjoy their day in saddle.