The Amgen Tour of California has grown into North America's premiere race over its eight-year history, and it now attracts the world's top talent. Although some riders come to prepare for the Tour de France or to ramp back up into competition after the Spring Classics, the race has become the main objective of the season for several riders.
For the first time in the history of the race, the riders will head from the south to the north, likely fighting headwinds and plenty of elevation gain over the eight stages.
Peter Sagan (Cannondale), the rider with the record for stage wins in California (eight), is due to return to his stomping grounds in search of more victories, but the 2013 parcours will offer up a few obstacles in his path: in the middle of stage 1, the 11-mile long climb of Palomar Mountain followed by Cole Grade, on stage 2 the race's first mountain finish to the Aerial Tramway in Palm Springs, and a second mountain top finish on Mt. Diablo will limit opportunities for sprinters and escape artists.
There has been no parcours better suited to Tejay van Garderen (BMC), who is the rider most focused on the overall victory this year. With three-time race winner Levi Leipheimer left team-less after a off-season doping ban, RadioShack's Chris Horner out with a knee injury and last year's winner Robert Gesink (Blanco) racing the Giro d'Italia, van Garderen has just one previous Tour of California champion to contend with, in Michael Rogers (Saxo-Tinkoff).
That won't mean there is a shortage of determined contenders: Francisco Mancebo (5 Hour Energy/Kenda) will be looking to impress the European team directors with an eye on a possible move back to his home in Spain full time. Omega Pharma-Quickstep will be looking to turn around some bad luck of late, and Sylvain Chavanel could be their man. Garmin-Sharp will be on the attack with young, promising riders like Alex Howes and veteran Dave Zabriskie, and RadioShack will want to please its US sponsor with a strong performance from a versatile team that includes 2010 Tour de France winner Andy Schleck.
The opening stage will favor the climbers as it heads from Escondido northward, skirting the rim of the desert before turning back up to the top of Palomar Mountain. The climb, while long, only averages 4.5%, and is much easier than the side that was climbed in 2009. However, the riders will descend the steeper and trickier South Grade - and it will favor those willing to take some risks to stay away.
Descending Palomar from that direction places the next climb up Cole Grade much sooner after riders reach the bottom, and without a real descent after the top of Cole Grade, this can be a prime launching pad for the stage-winning move. The last time the race came here it was Fränk Schleck who used the climb to get away with Vincenzo Nibali and then leave his Italian opponent behind to win the stage.
The overall contenders may choose, however, to keep their powder dry, since the following stage offers up a prime opportunity for climbers to gain real time on their rivals. The Murrieta to Palm Springs route tackles another Palomar-like climb mid-stage, the 10.7km rise up Highway 74, and to the finish at the Tramway, the riders must take on a 3.7 mile ascent that averages nearly 10%.
Whoever is in the race lead in Palm Springs will have to be very attentive over the next three stages, as the undulating terrain in the Palmdale-Santa Clarita circuits, and possible strong headwinds or cross-headwinds on the westward dash to Santa Barbara and the north-westerly jaunt up to Avila Beach could inspire a strong team to split the peloton.
After five stressful stages, the riders must then take on possibly the most difficult time trial in Tour of California history: the 19.8 mile test in San Jose which features a 1.7 mile, 10% grade ascent at the tail of the stage. It will be a test of pacing and strategy, as some riders may choose to swap their aerodynamic time trial machines for a lightweight climbing bike at the base of the ascent.
The time trial is far from the last opportunity to capture the overall classification, as the next day promises to bring absolute bedlam on the slopes of Mt. Diablo. The cycling-crazy Bay Area crowds are sure to flock to the distinctive peak that towers over Berkeley, and the 10.8 miles of road averaging nearly 6% will be lined by thousands of maniac fans, most of which will want to be in the last few hundred meters, where the road kicks up into the double-digit grades. It is here that the overall winner will make himself known.
A short, sweet final stage rouses the exhausted peloton from their slumber at an ungodly hour: the 8:15am start was necessitated to get riders across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge before the tour buses descend upon it in earnest. The sleepy riders will be awake soon enough, as they hammer up from the Marina Green to the bridge, and then head up Highway 101 North over a short climb, descend into Tamalpais-Homestead Valley and begin the Shoreline Highway wake-up call, a 2-mile climb that crests with a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean (provided the summer fog has not rolled in). A fast descent is followed by another short, sharp climb from Muir Beach that brings the riders to the famed coastal highway - a fairly flat and very fast trip up the shoreline to wine country.
The rest of the stage should be no problem for riders like Sagan, Juan Jose Haedo (Jamis-Hagens Berman), Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp) or Gianni Meersman (Omega Pharma-Quickstep), as the final climb on Freestone Road looks worse on paper than it is in real life. With two finishing circuits in downtown Santa Rosa, the fans should be treated to a high-speed, full on bunch kick to cap off the exciting week of racing.