AEG Sports, organizers of the Amgen Tour of California has combined some of the most scenic and challenging terrain the state has to offer for fifth edition of the race. The eight day event starts in Nevada City on May 16 and conclude in Agoura Hills, home to title sponsor Amgen, on May 23.
Now in its fifth edition, the UCI 2.HC event take advantage of the warmer late-spring temperatures to move the world-class peloton into the Sierra Nevada Mountains making the race a suitable lead-up to July's Tour de France.
"I think it is good preparation for the Tour de France," said three-time defending champion, Levi Leipheimer racing for Team RadioShack. "It is a hard stage race with a lot of climbing, eight days long and that is always a good preparation for something bigger like the Tour. I think the trick is to find a way to put it into your schedule properly."
There are seven ProTour teams and two Professional Continental teams making the trip across the Atlantic ocean, including RadioShack, HTC-Columbia, Quick Step, Saxo Bank, Garmin-Transitions, Rabobank and Liquigas-Doimo along with Cervelo Test Team and BMC Racing.
"There are riders coming to this race that will also do well in the Tour de France like myself, Michael Rogers, Andy Schleck and Fabian Cancellara," Leipheimer said. "I think a lot of these riders can do well here at the Tour of California and will obviously do well in the Tour de France, for sure."
Leipheimer and his teammate, seven-time Tour de France winner, Lance Armstrong are two of the marquee riders in attendance this year. Leipheimer will attempt to win his fourth consecutive title and will likely face steep competition from rivals Dave Zabriskie (Garmin-Transitions) and Michael Rogers (HTC-Columbia) who placed second and third respectively in last year's event.
The well-attended field contains a mixture of former world champions, Tour de France stage winners, Olympic medallists along with potential Tour of California stage winners and overall contenders. Those participating riders include Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia), Andy Schleck and Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank), Tom Danielson (Garmin-Transitions), Tom Boonen (Quick Step), and Lars Boom (Rabobank), Heinrich Haussler (Cervelo Test Team) and US Champion George Hincapie (BMC Racing). Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Doimo) was notably removed from the roster to replace his teammate Franco Pellizotti at the Giro d'Italia.
While last year's Amgen Tour provided an early tune up for the Giro d'Italia, this year's race overlaps with the Grand Tour, but according to Leipheimer, the timing hasn't impacted the quality of the field in California.
"I would say the strength of the field is the same this year as previous years, no more and no less," Leipheimer said. "I've personally had a different preparation. I've been training hard but I've also had a slower build up with doing some ProTour races. I think my form is better now, I have less weight now than I typically do in February and I feel like I have some depth from racing already this year."
Domestic pros welcome the late start
The US domestic calendar typically began with the Amgen Tour of California in early February. The event is the toughest and most prestigious race of the year for US-based Continental outfits. Team directors, staff and riders were thankful for the date change allowing them to better prepare by racing for several months before to going up against a world-class peloton.
"After seeing the roster I'm not so sure it is a good thing anymore," laughed Ed Beamon, Fly V Australia technical director. "I think the heart of it is that being later gives us all time to get a little bit more racing under our belts and the aspects of the organization are better so that we are not scrambling to get ready in February. Most importantly, it gives our teams a little bit of time to get to know one another and build the chemistry that is important for any race especially one as big as the Tour of California."
Race organizers invited seven Continental squads that include Fly V Australia, the leaders of the National Racing Calendar (NRC) standings, along with Bissell Pro Cycling, UnitedHealthcare p/b Maxxis, Jelly Belly p/b Kenda, SpiderTech p/b Planet Energy, Team Type 1 and Kelly Benefit Strategies.
The level of competition these teams have seen so far this year may not be as intense as that which the ProTour teams encounter, but Leipheimer indicated that this is not necessarily a disadvantage.
"I think they [domestic teams] are being positive and that is the main thing," Leipheimer said. "I would have to disagree and say that the fact that we've been racing ProTour races only makes it harder. The one thing that they do have an advantage of is that they don't have to travel to get over here and a lot of them know these roads really well and that is a big advantage."
Los Angeles time trial tops as decisive stage despite new mountaintop finish
The first stage of this year's race begins in Nevada City at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. However, the riders will head away from, rather than into, the hills on the mostly downhill 168-kilometre run to Sacramento.
Stage two's 177-kilometre road race will start in the famously bike-friendly city of Davis and bring the peloton into the mountains through the Napa Valley wine country. The riders will then drop down into the finishing city of Santa Rosa, Leipheimer's hometown.
The day's four King of the Mountain sprints will act as a warm up before the race heads into the larger mountains later in the week, but Leipheimer didn't think it would be a decisive day for the overall contenders.
"I think the field will split but I don't think there will be any less than half the riders up front," Leipheimer said. "The climbs are not really that difficult and there are no circuits in Santa Rosa this year. The climbs aren't that close to the finish either. I think it might go to a sprinter who can climb better than the other sprinters for that day."
The race returns to San Francisco for the start of stage three, a 183-kilometre scenic backdrop along parts of coastal highway 1. The race veers up into the mountains, offering the climbers a chance to test their legs over the challenging Tunitas Creek Road, La Honda Road and Bonny Doon Road ascent before dropping into the finishing city of Santa Cruz.
Stage four's 195-kilometre race will depart from San Jose with the intense Sierra Grade climb the first obstacle. The field could potentially break apart and regroup several times over the climbs throughout the day before reaching the flat run in to the finishing city of Modesto.
The peloton will muscle over several climbs during the stage five's 195-kilometre race from Visalia to Bakersfield. Sprinters' hopes of a bunch kick could be thwarted by a steep climb positioned on the three finishing circuits in downtown Bakersfield.
Stage six was originally slated to begin in Pasedena, but after winter storms damaged the route, it will now begin in Palmdale to the north. It will still bring the peloton on to its first ever mountaintop finish at Big Bear Lake after 214 challenging kilometres. The Queen stage includes 10,000 feet of climbing, which could shake up the overall classification. However, following the final summit, there are 16 kilometres of a flat run-in to the finish line that could allow for the front of the peloton to regroup.
Although the 2010 Amgen Tour is said to be the toughest of the four previous editions, Leipheimer is not convinced that any stage, with the exception of stage seven's 33.6-kilometre time trial held in Los Angeles, will be hard enough to cause major separations in the overall classification.
"I think there are a lot of hard stages but no one stage that you can really say that for sure is going to make a difference like an uphill finish would," Leipheimer said. "So I think the most important race is the time trial in Los Angeles and I think that will make the biggest difference. I think the race will be hard before then but it might not break apart so much. But for sure, when people start the time trial they are going to be feeling the race in their legs before hand."
The Amgen Tour of California winner will emerge upon the conclusion of stage eight's grand finale, a 134-kilometre circuit race held on May 23 in Thousand Oaks-Agoura Hills. The peloton will complete four laps of a 33-kilometre course that includes a 1,000 feet climb up the Mulholland Highway located 10 kilometres from the finish line in Agoura Hills.