Now in its ninth edition, the Tour of California has grown into North America's premiere race, attracting the world's top talent. Defending champion, Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), will not be participating in the race this year but cycling fans can expect to see a battle for the overall title amongst Team Sky's 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins, Garmin-Sharp's Janier Acevedo and BMC Racing's Peter Stetina, and others.
"I think the way the course is designed, after three days of racing we'll be able to see how the GC is going to look," Wiggins said in the opening press conference. "You're going to see the strongest guys come up at the beginning. It'll settle a little bit more before we get into LA."
The race kicks off on May 11 with the start and finish line outside the State Capitol in Sacramento. The 120km stage will ignite the sprint and the king of the mountain competitions, featuring three intermediate sprints and one climb before the day's fast finishing circuits.
This year's race includes a number of sprinters who will want to take the initial overall race lead, including Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Matthew Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale). "I came here for the first time five years ago and won two stages," Sagan said. "I came back and won another stage and I kept winning.The last two years were easier because Cavendish and Goss weren't here. Having them here is going to make this year harder."
Other capable sprinters include Cavendish's teammate Tom Boonen, John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano), Juan Jose Haedo (Jamis-Hagens Berman), Ryan Anderson (Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies) and John Murphy (UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling).
Race organizers will also showcase a new women's circuit race around the Capitol that will feature some of the top women racers in the world. The women's racing will continue the following day with a time trial in Folsom. California-native Alison Tetrick (Twenty16 p/b Breakaway from Cancer) is pleased with the organizer's decision to include two days of racing for the women's field, which will bring awareness to women's cycling. 'As a professional female cyclist, I'm very passionate about the sport and thank the sponsors for this opportunity.'
Following the women's time trial on May 12, the pro men will continue with Stage 2's 20.1km time trial. The course gains an elevation of 700ft and is expected to shake up the overall classification. American Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing), who will make his debut at the Tour de France in July, will be gunning for a strong performance in the time trial.
Stage 3, on May 13, will begin in San Jose and take the peloton on a 174.5km route, that includes an ascent over Mt. Hamilton and then finishes at the top of Mount Diablo, gaining nearly 11,000ft of elevation. Expect this stage to cause some bigger time differences in the overall classification. This stage is expected to favor riders like Stetina. 'We brought a real strong team,' he said. 'I'm really honored, as a new rider, that the team put faith in me to charge the team's goal to defend Tejay's title.'
On May 14, Stage 4 kicks off on the seaside town of Monterey and finishes 165.1km later in Cambria. Three intermediate ascents will make it a challenging stage, and perhaps a day for opportunistic riders like Jens Voigt (Trek Factory Racing).
Stage 5, on May 15, hosts a 172.9km race that starts at Pismo Beach and travels along scenic coast lines and through vineyards. Although it appears to be suitable for the sprinters, don't underestimate the difficulty of San Marcos Pass located just ahead of the run-in to the finish line in Santa Barbara.
Stage 6, on May 16, starts in Santa Clarita and travels for 151.8km before finishing along Big Pine Rd. and atop the decisive Mountain High North. With nearly 12,000ft of climbing, this might be one of the last chances for the climbers to make gains on one another in the overall classification. 'This race could potentially go down right to the last weekend,' Wiggins said. 'I don't think the mountaintop finishes are as straightforward as they look.'
Strong climbers racing for domestic teams that could do well on this stage include Daniel Jaramillo (Jamis-Hagens Berman), Carter Jones (Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies, James Oram (Bissell Development), Javier Megias (Novo Nordisk), Lucas Euser (UnitedHealthcare pro Cycling) and Matthew Lloyd (Jelly Belly p/b Maxxis)
The penultimate Stage 7, on May 17, also starts in Santa Clarita. It includes a 142.8km race with a climb through Angeles Forest and along the Angeles Crest Highway before dropping down onto the finishing circuits in Pasadena.
The Tour of California will conclude with a 122.4km circuit race that starts and finishes in Thousand Oaks. It is a difficult finale that is held on four 32km circuits and each include a climb over the Rock Store ascent before descending back toward the finish line.