By Mark Zalewski, North American Editor
"We think it is the best one we have had yet," is how the president of AEG Sports Andrew Messick, owner of the Amgen Tour of California, described the 2009 edition of the race – which will see an expansion to nine days and feature more climbing than the previous three years, all the way until the final with the toughest climb of the entire tour, Palomar Mountain, more than 1100 km into the tour and just 85 km from the overall finish near San Diego.
"We are excited that there is a chance the race will be resolved on the last day with two challenging stages on the Saturday and Sunday," Messick told Cyclingnews. "We like that there will be drama right to the finish. Anyone who wants to be champion will have to be fast up Palomar!"
Messick is referring to the first three tours, which saw the overall all-but-decided before the final stage. The first two years were more of a parade finish with a circuit race, and last year's finish into Pasadena with a climb over Millcreek Summit that was not quite challenging enough to isolate the leaders. But that course will now serve as the penultimate stage to Palomar, reaching 5,123 feet of elevation with a much steeper ascent.
"That climb into Pasadena isn't really that hard," said the race's technical director Chuck Hodge. "It's a long gradual 20 mile climb; Palomar is a real climb. I'm not sure how we are going to rate it but it will be at least a category 1 or an HC! It's close to a Mt. Hamilton – the descent is not as technical but it is long and fast, and there is still another climb after it before the finish."
Messick also explained that the expansion of the race was in an attempt to cover more of the state, especially new areas. "We are excited that we are covering the ground that we are. There are some parts of the state we are going that we will not be able to go [in 2009,] like the stage to San Luis Obispo down the Pacific Coast Highway. But we are happy to be in San Diego for the first time, and back in places like Santa Rosa where we have a history."
Messick also said that most of the teams have been finalized and that the announcement should come within a few weeks. "Once we announce the teams we will be in a position to say this is one of if not the strongest fields ever assembled in America!"
The original race plan called for a road stage start in Sacramento, but Messick said that was altered in the past months on advice from teams and various sanctioning bodies concerned over the level of racing so early in the season. "We've had in the last three months a number of very productive and candid discussions with the teams, UCI and USA Cycling. We were persuaded that with the mileage going from eight to nine stages might be just a little bit much for February. After consultation we came to the conclusion it may be better for the athletes and for the fans too, to see the race."
Messick also said that the change to a prologue start, like the three previous editions, would afford fans more solo time of a certain rider – one that organizers are clearly thankful for. "We are excited that Lance is going to be participating in the race," said Messick. "It's an extra opportunity to see him perform solo as well, which was also a factor [in the decision.]
Women's race remains one-day criterium
While the men's race is expanding in terms of length and difficulty, the proposed expansion of the women's racing from last year's inaugural women's criterium in Santa Rosa has been postponed. Messick said that while last year's race was a success, the logistics did not fall into place as planned – with much of that as a result of the change to a prologue in Sacramento for the men.
"We spent a lot of time and effort on [the women's race,]" said Messick. "There was a fair amount of interrelatedness [with the men's race.] But once we decided to have a prologue in Sacramento, the course became an issue and it became very complicated."
What the race planned on doing was using the finishing circuits of the men's stages to hold a women's criterium prior to the arrival of the men. As such, the criterium planned for Santa Rosa is still a go. "Having finishing loops in Santa Rosa makes a lot of sense. We plan on growing it in 2010, but it would be better for this year to stay with what we had last year, which was a big success."
While not necessarily related to the women's racing reduction, the state of the U.S. and world economies is still an elephant in the room, even for a big race like the Tour of California. When asked what the impacts of the recession mean for the race, Messick quickly replied, "We love Amgen!"
"This is a challenging time for the sports industry and for cycling. We are saddened by what happened to the Tour de Georgia. It was an outstanding platform to showcase the sport. We think 2009 will be a very challenging year, not just for our cycling race but for our other sports, like our tennis tournament, soccer teams and ice hockey."
"Having a partner that takes a long term view is great. And we have a new relationship with Rabobank, and our very appreciative that they have invested in our race. The wind is not at our back right now and we are going to everything we can to grow it, but conditions are a lot tougher for us."
Read Cyclingnews'detailed coverage of the 2009 Tour of California route announcement.