The second annual Etape du California presented by Specialized drew 1000 riders to tackle stage 7 of the 2012 Amgen Tour of California. The 79-mile route, which included 11,000+ feet of climbing, finished at the ski station on Mount Baldy.
Last year's Etape du California started up the road in nearby Claremont, but with that city taking a hiatus for 2012, the Ontario Convention Center served as ground zero for the assault. The new start increased the stage's distance by five miles, but since this was primarily flat riding, the overall difficulty remained the same.
The 7:00 am start insured that the initial 3,500 foot climb to Mount Baldy Village would be bearable, but with temperatures in the mid-80s at midday, the bulk of the participants would be feeling the heat as they started up the second major climb, Glendora Mountain Road at mile 52.
With the Mount Baldy Ski Station situated at 6300 feet, temperatures in the low to mid-60s were predicted, but the final three miles of of the climb, which average 10+%, were considered to be the main obstacle and not the weather.
Like it's namesake, the Tour de France's Etape du Tour, riders were timed during the ride. However, unlike in France where the total time to complete the stage is used for ranking riders, at the Etape du California, two climbs were used to determine the King and Queen of the Mountains.
The first climb, 9.66 miles up Glendora Mountain Road, gained 2400 feet for an average gradient of 5%. The second climb, the final 4.5 miles to the ski station at Mount Baldy, climbed 2,100 feet for an 8.9% average gradient.
With times of 34:20 and 32:19 for the first and second section and an aggregate of 1 hour, six minutes, 36-year-old Los Angeles resident Nate Whitman was crowned King of the Mountain.
"Even before the official starting point of the [first] timed climb, [the pace] picked up and split the group in half. So once we were on the climb, there were about 10 riders together in front. The conditions were perfect. Not too windy, and the switchbacks seemed to inject some energy into our legs," said Whitman.
"Mt. Baldy really turns into every man for himself. There aren't many tactics on that road. It's whoever is climbing best and has the most gas left in the tank. It really is more of a personal challenge against yourself and the mountain, and less about competing with the other guys out there. But its also great to have strong riders to push you to your best," said Whitman.
Tracy Tilton from La Habra won the Queen of the Mountain with times of 40:17 and 40:27 for sections one and two, respectively, for a total of 1 hour, 20 minutes.
Whitman completed the 79-mile route in four hours, 48 minutes. Last year the pros were about one hour faster than the leading Etape du California rider over the course so look for Chris Horner, Tejay Van Garderen and the rest to be crossing the finish line in under four hours on May 19th.
Of note was NBA champion and Hall of Famer Bill Walton, who was the last official finisher in 2011. The seven-footer is a great ambassador for the sport and returned this year for another go. Again, he was the last official finisher, but his infectious enthusiasm for cycling was an inspiration for all the participants.
With the stages for the 2013 Amgen Tour of California yet to be determined, organizers of the Etape du Californian have not yet announced the featured stage for next year's race. Suffice it to say that the opportunity to ride a stage of America's premier multi-day race continues to make the Etape a popular event.