Preview: Tour of California gears up for 10th year

Sprinter showdown likely in opening stages, but Mt. Baldy looms

In the tradition-rich world of cycling, where some of the oldest monuments reach back into history more than a hundred years, a single decade marks a race that hasn't yet hit adolescence. But for the Amgen Tour of California, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, a decade has sometimes seemed like a liftetime.

The race has witnessed monsoon-like conditions in the early years when it was on the calendar in February. It persevered through a snowed-out stage during a planned start at Lake Tahoe in 2011. It survived several invasions by Rock Racing and its flamboyant owner Michael Ball, who had three riders cover stage routes ahead of the 2008 race after being excluded by organisers. The race was the site of a showdown between an icon of the sport, Lance Armstrong and his dogged accuser Floyd Landis, and it was the unwilling host for headline-stealing revelations from the race's first winner that would eventually prove true and rock the sport to its core.

It all seems like an awful lot for one decade, but the UCI 2.HC race that started in the still-warm glow of Armstrong's seven Tour de France wins, which have since been vacated by the UCI, continues to thrive and even expand this year.

The eight-day race, an entity of Anschutz Entertainment Group, the world's largest owner of sports teams and events, has grown into an important preparation race for the Tour de France in July. AEG invited 18 men's teams to the race this year, more than ever before, and it has added a three-day women's UCI race to the mix.

Eight WorldTour teams will compete in the 2015 race, including Team Sky, Etixx-QuickStep, BMC Racing, Giant-Alpecin, Tinkoff-Saxo, Trek Factory Racing, LottoNL-Jumbo and Cannondale-Garmin. MTN-Qhubeka, Drapac Pro Cycling, UnitedHealthcare and Novo Nordisk represent the Pro Continental ranks, while US domestic teams include Optum-Kelly benefit Strategies, Jelly Belly-Maxxis, Jamis-Hagens Berman, Hincapie Racing, Axeon Cycling and Team SmartStop.


The California coast has provided a beautiful backdrop for the race (Getty Images Sport).

Stage Hunters

Sprinters will get the first chance to shine in a race that offers five solid opportunities for bunch finishes. Of the fast men who will line up for Sunday's start in Sacramento, Mark Cavendish (Etixx-QuickStep), winner of both the opening and closing stages in California last year, has been off to the best start so far this season. The Manxman has eight wins already in 2015, most recently three stages at the Tour of Turkey. Cavendish will have ace lead-out man Mark Renshaw on hand in California as well.

Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) has accumulated more stage wins in California than any other rider, but he only managed one at last year's race. His switch from Cannondale to Tinkoff has not gone as well as expected: the 25-year-old Slovakian reached the top step of the podium only once this year. No doubt he'd like to right that ship in California with a couple of stage wins.

Marcel Kittel was originally on Giant-Alpecin's roster, but after he returned from illness at the Tour de Yorkshire last week and quickly abandoned during the opening stage, his team decided he needs more time for training. 

Team Sky were likely hoping that Ben Swift could repeat his 2011 stage win in California, but the British rider injured his shoulder in a crash at the Tour de Yorkshire and will have to skip the race this year. Bernie Eisel could fill that role for Sky now.

Other sprinters to watch include Tyler Farrar, who won a stage in Santa Barbara in 2013, and his MTN-Qhubeka teammates Gerald Ciolek, Theo Bos or Matthew Goss. Trek Factory Racing has Danny Van Poppel, while Jamis-Hagens Berman's Sebastian Haedo has shined in the US domestic races.

If the race plays out the way it did in 2014, when riders from breakaways won three stages, the opportunists will also get their chance for glory. The teams are stacked with one-day specialists, most notably as of late is Julian Alaphilippe, Etixx-QuickStep's 22-year-old phenom that recently finished second in both Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Flèche Wallonne.

Other opportunists to watch for in the breakaways include Stijn Devolder (Trek Factory Racing), Sep Vanmarcke (Team LottoNL-Jumbo), Daniel Oss (BMC Racing), Matti Breschel (Tinkoff-Saxo), Alex Howes (Cannondale-Garmin) and Tanner Putt (UnitedHealthcare).

When the race goes uphill, stage hunters could include Laurens ten Dam (LottoNL-Jumbo), Lachlan Norris (Drapac), Rob Britton (Team SmartStop), Gavin Mannion (Jelly Belly-Maxxis), James Oram (Axeon Cycling), Gregory Brenes (Jamis-Hagens Berman), Phil Gaimon (Optum) or Michael Woods (Optum).


Crosswinds helped Jens Voigt steal a stage from the sprinters at Avila Beach in 2013 (Getty Images Sport)

General Classification

Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo) is the only returning champion in the field, but the Dutch rider underwent surgery last year to repair a heart problem and has not quite returned to the level he was competing at prior to the layoff. The 28-year-old, who was California's best young rider in 2007 and 2008, only has nine race days so far this year, but he rode well recently at Tour de Romandie and shouldn't be discounted.

Lawson Craddock (Giant-Alpecin), who finished third in 2014, is the highest-placed rider returning from last year's race, and the 23-year-old Texan is always motivated for the Tour of California. Craddock crashed at the Tour down Under in January and was down for two months, but he's had 18 race days since returning.

Craddock's Dutch team has Frenchman Warren Barguil, a double stage winner at the 2013 Vuelta a Espana and eighth at the Spanish Grand Tour last year, to pick up the GC banner. Carter Jones, who finished 11th last year while riding with Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies, is another option for Giant-Alpecin.

Craddock's former Bontrager teammate Joe Dombrowski will return to California this year with Cannondale-Garmin after working for Bradley Wiggins' win last year on Team Sky. The talented climber has always excelled in California and will get quite a bit more leash to ride for himself this year. Andrew Talansky has never experienced good luck in California, but he would no doubt like to change that this year.

Team Sky's California roster took a blow when they had to scrub 2011 stage winner Ben Swift because of injury, but young guns Sergio Henao, Peter Kennaugh and Ian Boswell could make a run at the GC. De Brabantse Pijl winner Ben Hermans would be a good bet to take the general classification reins for BMC.


Robert Gesink celebrates his 2012 win (Getty Images Sport).

The Route

Although the 2015 route will follow the same north-to-south direction as the 2014 race, the general classification should shake out much later in the week and the sprinters could reign until then. The overall battle will likely be decided on days six and seven, starting with the Big Bear Lake time trial on Friday and continuing the next day with the summit finish on Mt. Baldy.

By contrast, Wiggins took the overall lead last year during the stage 2 time trial in Folsom and then defended it during the following day's summit finish on Mt. Diablo. Wiggins' team controlled the race from there, keeping breakaways in check until the sprinters' teams took over late in the stages. Shared responsibility for control didn't work out so well for the sprinters, however, as escapees won three of the eight stages, stealing at least two days of glory from the fast men.

The race opens Sunday in Sacramento with a 203km loop that starts and finishes in the state capitol city. Cavendish won the opener here last year by three millimeters over Giant-Alpecin's John Degenkolb after crosswinds in the outskirts of town put a brief scare into the peloton. Time bonuses up for grabs at three intermediate sprints and at the finish should keep the action lively.

Stage 2 will take riders over 193km from Nevada City to Lodi. The race will begin with several laps of the traditional Nevada City Classic course before heading south for the day's only categorised climb, the category 4 ascent on CA 49 in Eldorado County. Time bonuses are back again for three intermediate sprints and the finish, which looks to be another all-out bunch gallop.

Stage 3 in San Jose could be the day the sprinters will have to surrender their dominance. The 169km stage starts with one non-time bonus sprint, followed by five categorised climbs, including the out-of-category ascent over Mt. Hamilton with 48km remaining.

The category 2 climb of Quimby Road follows 19km later, and the race finishes with the grind up Metcalf Road, which was used as part of the 2013 individual time trial. Gradients over the final half kilometre on Metcalf Road reach more than 10 percent. Look for a finish from a reduced group here, but not necessarily a throwdown for the final general classification.

The 173km stage 4 run from Pismo Beach to Avila Beach looks like another good day for the sprinters – at least on paper. The race includes just one categorised climb about halfway through the stage before riders turn back toward the coast and the finish. Crosswinds ripped the race apart the last time the race visited Avila Beach in 2013, however, and Jens Voigt took advantage of the chaos to sneak away with a solo stage win.

Stage 5 from Santa Barbara to Santa Clarita is packed with two intermediate sprints and four categorised climbs, although none of them rise above category 3. With the final category 4 climb of Balcom Canyon coming nearly 70km from the finish, the 154km stage looks like another shot for the sprinters. Sagan won in Santa Clarita ahead of Michael Matthews when the race finished here in 2013.

After a week of biding their time and limiting any possible losses, the GC men will come out in earnest for the Big Bear lake individual time trial on stage 6. The 24.2km route starts in Big Bear Village on the lake's south shore before making its way to the turnaround in Fawnskin on the lake's northern side. Riders will follow a mostly identical route back to the finish in Big Bear Village.

Saturday's Queen Stage should set the board for a general classification chess match equal to the race's 10th anniversary. The 128km day that starts in Ontario includes the category 2 climbs of Glendora Ridge Road and Glendora Mountain Road before the out-of-category climb to the summit finish on Mt. Baldy. The last time the race finished on Baldy in 2012, Gesink took the stage win and the overall lead with an attack in the final kilometres.

With the general classification all but decided, Sunday's 105km stage from downtown Los Angeles to the Rose Bowl should be a sleigh ride to another sprint finish. The course will pass by the Biltmore Hotel, Pershing Square, China Town, Lincoln Heights and Cypress Park on its way to the iconic stadium in Pasadena and the conclusion of the the 10th anniversary race.


Peter Sagan wins stage 7 in Pasadena during the 2014 Tour of California (Getty Images Sport).

2015 Amgen Tour of California:
Stage 1: Sunday, May 10 – Sacramento (203.1km)
Stage 2: Monday, May 11 – Nevada City to Lodi (193.7km)
Stage 3: Tuesday, May 12 – San Jose (169.8km)
Stage 4: Wednesday, May 13 – Pismo Beach to Avila Beach (173.1km)
Stage 5: Thursday, May 14 – Santa Barbara to Santa Clarita (154km)
Stage 6: Friday, May 15 – Big Bear individual time trial (24.2km)
Stage 7: Saturday, May 16 – Ontario to Mt. Baldy (128.7km)
Stage 8: Sunday, May 17 – Los Angeles to Pasadena (105.2km)

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