The Amgen Tour of California is talking about its toughest route yet for the 11th edition coming up May 15-22, and after riding the race’s 2016 queen stage during last weekend’s L’Etape California, race ambassador Jens Voigt agrees.
“With that climb you cannot hide,” the two-time California stage winner told Cyclingnews hours after finishing the sportif that duplicated this year’s Tour of California stage 3 route. Voigt was talking about the stage’s final climb, a 12km ascent up Gibraltar Road outside of Santa Barbara.
“You cannot play smart or hang on or be clever,” he said of racing up Gibraltar. “You just gotta have it. You either have it or not. So you can clearly see who’s hot and who’s not after stage 3.”
After his personal experience with Gibraltar, Voigt did not favour 2015 winner Peter Sagan’s chances of repeating his overall victory. Sagan lost his yellow jersey last year during the climb up Mt. Baldy on the penultimate day, but his performance up the climb kept him close enough to stage winner and new race leader Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep) that he was able to take back the lead with a time bonus on the final day. Voigt said Gibraltar will be a bigger obstacle for Sagan than Baldy was, however.
“I’m a big fan of Peter Sagan, I really do like him a lot, but I think it’s going to be very difficult for him to repeat last year’s win,” Voigt said. “I think it’s going to be very challenging for him – with a climb like that already on the third stage – to actually defend his title.
“I can see a little Colombian climber winning there,” Voigt said. “It’s a really proper climber’s climb.”
The 167.5km stage 3 route on Tuesday, May 17, will take the peloton from Thousand Oaks to the top of Gibraltar Road outside of Santa Barbara.
The peloton will start the day immediately ascending over the category 3 climb of Potrero Road and the category 2 climb of Westlake Boulevard before heading back down to the Pacific Coast via Mullholland Highway.
“We basically turned right, turned left and then went straight uphill,” Voigt said of the day's start. “I’m sure that there is going to be fireworks. People are going to go bang, bang, left, right, left, right and attack everywhere. Then there’s quite a winding, fast descent, so it’s going to be shattered into like 10 groups by the time they hit the bottom.”
After descending, the route turns right, heading north up the Pacific Coast Highway through the agricultural fields surrounding Oxnard and Ventura before another categorized climb over Casitas Pass Road. Voigt expects some regrouping before the climb, but a small breakaway will likely still be away at this point. The general classification favourites, meanwhile, will continue to bide their time for the finale.
“There will be a little bit of climbing going on there by Lake Casitas, but it’s still too early – it’s the middle of the stage – so I don’t think the big contenders will show their cards there,” Voigt said.
An Intermediate sprint in Carpinteria leads to the foothills and eventually the day’s main attraction, the 12.5km climb to the top of Gibraltar Road, which gains nearly 1,000 metres of elevation by the time riders reach a finish line that overlooks Santa Barbara and the Pacific Ocean.
Voigt said the undulating roads leading up to the final climb are not the typically large American thoroughfares that Europeans like to marvel at, so positioning will be another challenge in the closing, tense kilometres before the road turns uphill in earnest.
This year will be the first time Gibraltar has been used in the Tour of California, although it’s a popular climb with many local cyclists and some of the top US pros. The Strava top 20 for the climb includes a cast of Cannondale Pro Cycling characters, including Mike Woods, Lawson Craddock, Nathan Brown, and Joe Dombrowski, along with Gavin Mannion (Drapac Pro Cycling) and Jesse Anthony (Rally Cycling).
After riding the Gibraltar climb during L’Etape, Voigt said he understands why the road is a favourite for climbers, although the pros at the front of the race next month won’t have time to appreciate the sweeping coastal views.
“It’s a tough climb,” Voigt repeated for emphasis. “It’s a really, really, really hard climb.”
As race ambassador, Voigt, who retired following the 2014 season, appears at functions connected with the race, contributes to NBC Sports’ television coverage and generally keeps his many fans happy. Part of the job is riding L’Etape, which Voigt also did last year on the queen stage route that finished at the top of Mt. Baldy. He said Gibraltar is definitely the harder climb of the two.
“Maybe it’s because I’m one year older, but I believe it was harder today,” he said. "OK, it was super hot on the climb. The sun was just burning down, just scorching down on your back, so it’s super hot and there’s not too much wind here on some parts of the climb.
“It will be challenging for the guys in the peloton; that stage is hard,” he said. “That is a really serious, legit climb.”
Stage 3 will undoubtedly open a new chapter in the 2016 race's general classification, with the winner of the stage most likely leading the overall race as well, Voigt said.
After Gibraltar, of course, riders will have plenty of places to gain or lose time over the five remaining stages, including the short, steep climbs in the closing kilometres of stage 4 before the finish at Laguna Seca Raceway, the long grind up to Lake Tahoe during stage 5, the 20km time trial in Folsom during stage 6 or the jagged profile of the Santa Rosa circuit during stage 7.
Unless crosswinds come into play over the fast and flat Sacramento stage, the final day should go to the sprinters, but the overall winner at the 2016 Tour of California will have climbed his way to the victory.
2016 Tour of California:
Stage 1, Sunday, May 15 – San Diego to San Diego – 170.5km
Stage 2, Monday, May 16 – South Pasadena to Santa Clarita – 148km
Stage 3, Tuesday, May 17 – Thousand Oaks to Gibraltar Road – 167.5km
Stage 4, Wednesday May 18 – Morro Bay to Laguna Seca – 215km
Stage 5, Thursday, May 19 – Lodi to South Lake Tahoe – 132.4km
Stage 6, Friday, May 20 – Folsom (ITT) – 20.3km
Stage 7, Saturday, May 21 – Santa Rosa to Santa Rosa – 146.5km
Stage 8, Sunday, May 22 – Sacramento to Sacramento – 136.5km