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Long, flat finish to Big Bear stage will minimize time gaps
The Amgen Tour of California organizers announced the details of stages 5 and 6 of this year's race, revealing the course of the much anticipated stage to Big Bear Lake. Those hoping for a mountaintop battle may be disappointed to find a perfectly flat final 10km to the stage.
Providing a tune-up for the Big Bear stage, the fifth day of the Tour will see the central valley town of Visalia return as host of the start, but the riders will travel to Bakersfield this year, covering 195.5km with a mid-stage trip into the Sierra Nevada mountain foothills. It's no mountain stage, but there are a few tough ascents which will play into the hands of those battling for the KOM prize.
The first mountain sprint features a punishing 14 percent grade before the riders get some relief on the long, gradual descent to the Kern River oil field.
As they exit the valley they'll take in another KOM before heading into Bakersfield where the organizers have devised a crafty three-lap finishing circuit which could ruin the plans for the sprinters.
Containing a short climb of 10 percent which riders will encounter three times, it will be a prime launching pad for attacks, but with 2km left to go to the finish, it will take great fortitude for any escapee to hold off the sprinters.
The GC contenders will likely be resting their legs for the next day and the 213.7km Queen stage to Big Bear Lake. With over 10,000 feet of climbing, the sixth stage will likely see the sprinters form a "gruppetto" not far from the start as the contenders for the overall wage war on the first ascent out of Pasedena.
The climbing begins shortly after the start at the Rose Bowl and continues at an unrelenting grade for nearly 7000 feet of elevation gain to the highest point of the Tour at 7900 feet.
A long and potentially dangerous descent, should the winds be high, follows before the race heads back up the long and less steep climb to Big Bear Lake.
The greatly anticipated mountaintop battle may prove to be a bit of a let-down, as the race does not finish at the summit, but continues along the valley for 10 miles before the finish line.
Stage 5 is an interesting addition to the race, in that it has a short, sharp hill up to the finish that is climbed three times as the race heads around the finishing circuits.
This won't be a finish for a pure sprinter, but someone like Oscar Friere or Thor Hushovd could be in the mix. It also will suit Fabian Cancellara, if he is at race weight and on form.
Can the GC change on this day? Maybe not much, but an uphill finish like this have a habit of catching one or two contenders out.
Typically there will be a six to 15 second gap between the first 10 or so riders and the rest of the peloton on this type of circuit, and positioning into the bottom of the climb will be crucial.
We'll need to be extra vigilant in keeping Dave Zabriskie out of trouble on this type of circuit, as it won't be his favorite part of the race.
There's been a lot of talk about the stage 5 finish as being the first mountaintop finish ever in TOC, but honestly, I don't think this day will be that crucial amongst the top five on GC.
The gradual climb up to Big Bear, with lots of little downhills and a flat final 10kms seem to make this day less important than stage 3 when it comes to the overall.
Of course, this is going to be a very hard day, the longest and toughest of the race, even harder if your team is having to defend the race lead, and I imagine there will be attacks all day long, as those strong riders who aren't in contention for the GC have nothing to lose anymore, so conserving energy isn't a priority.
It's a bit too tough for the sprinters, so their teams won't be helping either. So, all in all, I see a day where the race leaders' team is pushed to the point of cracking all day long.
However, if they don't lose their cool, its another day where a group of 20 or so fights out the finish, or a lone survivor from an earlier breakaway comes in for the win.
Since the jetlag will be out of the system, I'd say a strong European rider wins on this day. Maybe Jakog Fuglsang from Saxo Bank?