Now in its 12th year, the Amgen Tour of California has reached the pinnacle of the sport with a WorldTour designation on the UCI calendar, and the race is ready to roll out of Sacramento on May 14 for seven stages to decide the winner. Along the way, the race will visit iconic southern California beach towns, spend a day or two in the mountains and then storm into downtown Pasadena on May 20 for the finish and ensuing celebrations.
The race features 12 WorldTour teams after UAE Team Emirates was a late edition, and 'King of California' Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) will hold center stage once again. Three Pro Continental teams and two Continental teams, which received special dispensation from the UCI to be eligible for the race, will round out the field.
The opening stages should provide plenty of sound and fury, as Sagan and the fast finishers will have multiple opportunities for stage glory. The rouleurs will look for opportunities on stage 2, and the general classification contenders will hold their cards close to their chests until the race for the overall win heats up on the stage 5 climb to Mt. Baldy.
The expected showdown among top sprinters suffered a glancing blow when Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) announced he is recovering from mononucleosis and Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) had to withdraw after a recently suffering a concussion at the Tour de Yorkshire.
There are still plenty of fast men on hand to light up the sprint stages, however, with world champion Sagan ready to add to the record 15 stages wins that have earned him the 'King of California' nickname. He'll have no shortage of challenges, though, including from Quick-Step's Marcel Kittel, who most recently won the Belgian classic Scheldeprijs in April.
Katusha-Alpecin's Alexander Kristoff has six wins so far this season but recently revealed tension within the team, so the Norwegian will likely bring an out-sized amount of motivation to the sprints. Trek-Segafredo's John Degenkolb has just one win so far this year but has been knocking on the door repeatedly as of late and is due for another.
Team Sky's Elia Viviani is always a danger man, while American Tyler Farrar will have to pick up the Dimesnion Data banner in Cavendish's absence. Other dark horse contenders for the sprint stages include BMC Racing's Jempy Drucker, Cannondale-Drapac's Wouter Wippert, UnitedHealthcare's Travis McCabe, Rally Cycling's Eric Young, Cofidis' Jonas van Genechten and Sunweb's Max Walscheid.
The general classification stages are back-ended toward the latter part of the week, with the Queen stage to Mt. Baldy coming on stage 5 and the individual time trial in Big Bear Lake on the penultimate day. There will be a big effort for riders with overall hopes to keep their powder dry until the bottom of Baldy, then all bets are off.
With defending champion Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) absent this year, Sagan and LottoNL-Jumbo's Robert Gesink will be the only past champions on the start line when the race rolls out of Sacramento.
Sagan did not defend his 2015 overall title during last year's race, and the parcours for the overall race look more suited to his teammate Rafal Majka. The world champion is always full of surprises, however, and should never be counted out. Gesink won in 2012 but he was fifth in his last attempt at California on 2015. George Bennett rode the team's GC hopes last year, finishing seventh.
Of the top three finishers in 2016, only Brent Bookwalter of BMC returns this year. Rohan Dennis, who was second in 2016, was racing the Giro until injuries suffered in a crash forced him to abandon. BMC's GC hopes are in good hands with Bookwalter, however, as the American has been riding well recently, finishing second to Thibaut Pinot during the Queen stage at Tour of the Alps and placing fourth overall at the Tour de Yorkshire.
In Alaphilippe's absence, Quick-Step could be looking to David de la Cruz for a GC result. The 28-year-old finished 10th in 2014 while riding for NetApp-Endura. So far this year, De la Cruz has won a stage at Paris-Nice and one at Pais Vasco, where he was fourth overall.
American Ian Boswell will be taking his first shot as the designated leader for Team Sky. Boswell has been steadily developing with the British super team and is hoping to prove his mettle in California next week. Boswell has yet to nail down his first pro win, but he has performed well on Mt. Baldy in the past, including a third-place finish behind Alaphilippe and teammate Sergio Henao in 2015.
Boswell's fellow American, Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac), has a big X marked on the race this year after disappointing performances here in the past, including having to abandon the 2015 race on the opening day because of breathing issues. He earned his best finish in California last year with second in the time trial and fourth overall, then went on to finish fifth at the Vuelta. The resurgent Talansky hasn't raced since dropping out of Pais Vasco in April, but the rider who lives in California will no doubt be well-prepared for his 'home' race.
Lachlan Morton, who won the Tour of Utah last year with Jelly Belly-Maxxis and now riders with Dimension Data, has experience in California and was an early animator of last year's Queen stage on Gibraltar Road outside of Santa Barbara, eventually finishing seventh.
The 2017 route will take place in the same footprint as the 2015 race with a few tweaks along the way. As in 2015, the race starts in Sacramento with a flat day for the sprinters before heading south toward San Jose, then spending a couple days along the coast before heading inland toward Santa Clarita, Mt. Baldy, the Big Bear time trial and then the finish in Pasadena.
While there are multiple opportunities for the sprinters and the breakaway opportunists, the general classification contenders will obviously have to focus their efforts on Baldy and Big Bear during stages 5 and 6, respectively.
Stage 1: Sacramento – 167km
There's not much to write about this pancake flat stage that finishes with three laps around a 3.5km, six-corner circuit that circles the state capitol building. Cavendish won a similar stage on the final day last year, so expect to see another full-on bunch sprint and one of the fast men in the leader's jersey at the end of day 1.
Stage 2: Modesto to San Jose – 144.5km
Modesto will host a stage start for the first time on the second day of the 2017 race, but the finish of stage 2 at the motorcycle park outside of San Jose is another throwback to 2015. This year's stage heads southwest from Modesto and picks up the 2015 route with about 70km remaining, just in time to ascend Mt. Hamilton.
The out-of-category climb, which averages 8.7 per cent gradient over 7km, peaks out 97km into the day and so leaves plenty of room for things to come back together before the final climb to the finish. In 2015, Sagan won the field sprint for second head of Alaphilippe, but it was Toms Skujins who soloed to the stage win after dropping his breakaway companions. Although not likely to affect the GC, the stage is quite lumpy with four other categorised climbs on Del Puerto Canyon Road, San Antonio Valley Road and Quimby Road.
Stage 3: Morro Bay to Pismo Beach – 192.5km
After a difficult day of climbing toward San Jose, the sprinters will have another opportunity during this day that starts and finishes on the Pacific Coast. Morro Bay and Pismo beach are only 38km apart as the crow flies, so the stage will actually head inland far south of Pismo Beach, then turn back toward the coast after tackling the only categorised climb of the day, the third-category Tepusquet Road that comes 84km into the day. Many riders will recognise the majority of this stage from 2015 when it started a few kilometres down the coast in Avila Beach.
Stage 4: Santa Barbara to Santa Clarita – 159.5km
This stage is also a throwback to 2015, when Cavendish took a wet field sprint ahead of Zico Waeytens and Sagan. The route is not all about the sprinters, however, as it includes four categorised climbs, including Casitas Pass 1 (cat. 2), Casitas Pass 2 (cat. 3), Dennison Grade (cat. 3), and Balcom Canyon (cat. 2). Several more uncategorised climbs lead to the long, slightly uphill 40km drag to the finish. Expect another bunch gallop here.
Stage 5: Ontario to Mt. Baldy – 125.5km
This is the one that all of the general classification riders will have been waiting for. The 2017 Tour of California Queen stage includes just there categorised climbs, the first-category ascents of Glendora Ridge and Glendora Mountain Road, and the out-of-category romp up Mt. Baldy at the finish.
Baldy, which averages 8.4 per cent over 8.2km, is legendary and as iconic a climb as you'll find in US racing. Before riders battle up its slopes for the stage win and possible overall lead, however, they'll have to tackle the two other monsters.
When the race last featured this exact stage in 2015, Sagan lost his leader's jersey to stage winner Alaphilippe, but he was able to stay close enough to the Frenchman to reclaim the lead with time bonuses in the sprint on the final day.
Henao was second on the stage in 2015, followed by teammate Boswell. Sagan was sixth that day, 47 seconds behind the winner.
Stage 6: Big Bear Lake Time Trial – 24km
This stage was supposed to be featured in 2015 as well, but a freak snowstorm laid waste to those plans and a shorter 10km time trial – which Sagan won – at a local amusement park was run in its place. Barring a repeat performance from the inclement weather, the small mountain community will finally get to host the stage long delayed.
The 24km out-and-back course starts and finishes on the south side of the lake, while the majority of the riding is on the other side. The course is completely flat, but the altitude of nearly 2,100 meters above sea level should provide plenty of challenge. The course is not highly technical and should favour riders who can pour on the power even when the oxygen in the air gets thin.
While the time trial specialists will be aiming for a stage win here, it will likely be the last hope for any general classification riders who want to improve their position.
Stage 7: Mountain High to Pasadena – 125km
With three categorised climbs, the final stage to Pasadena will provide an opportunity for any last attempts to seize the mountains jersey, but the general downhill run from the ski resort to the finish looks like a perfect set up for a final bunch sprint.
Mountain High last featured in the race in 2014 as a finish for stage 6, won by Esteban Chaves ahead of De la Cruz and Tom Danielson. This year's start at the ski resort will set up a fast opening salvo for the final stage, which finishes in downtown Pasadena rather than at the Rose Bowl as it did 2015.
The stage mimics the final 75km of that 2014 stage finish in Pasadena, picking up after the first KOM on Mt. Emma, then tackling the Angeles Forest Highway summit and Upper Big Tujunga Canyon before the final free fall to the line. The last time the race used this finish, Sagan took the stage win ahead of Thor Hushovd and Danny van Poppel.