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California Dreaming

The peloton rides along California Highway 1 just past the Bixby Bridge during stage four of the 2014 Amgen Tour of California from Monterey to Cambria
(Image credit: Getty Images)

This feature first appeared in an earlier edition of Procycling magazine. Subscribe here.

Stage 1: Sac Race

The Sacramento Capitol, a grand neoclassical building painted in white, seat of the governor of California, is used to big personalities. Two of its more famous incumbents have been Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronald Reagan, so as the first stage of the 2019 Tour of California is about to begin and the headline riders are presented to the public under bright blue skies, it’s easy to imagine that the locals might be hard to impress. Ditto most other  cycling fans: several time zones away, the Giro d’Italia is two days old, and the cycling world is abuzz with talk of Primož Roglič’s stage 1 TT win.

One of the race announcers, Brad Sohner, will tell me later in the week that if European races are symphonies, California is a rock and roll concert, and the crowd is being whipped up by Sohner’s fellow announcer, Dave Towle. Towle is an institution, the excitable, hyperbolic and gravelly-voiced aural backdrop to many US races. His technique is to lift a crowd, hold them there, lift them again, hold them there, then lift them again, again and again, through sheer force of vocal will. Towle makes domestic sprinter Travis McCabe’s name last a good eight seconds. He describes Kiwi George Bennett as being from “Down Under” but when it’s that enthusiastic, even Bennett doesn’t look too put out. Nacer Bouhanni: "This man is ferocious!” And with Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan, 25 stage wins between them, presented, Towle prepares the crowd for the grand depart. “We are locked and loaded," he hollers.

The riders will head west out of Sacramento, crossing the iconic, yellow-painted iron Tower Bridge, gateway to the city, where the honks of the nesting geese echo along the Sacramento river, then, many miles of wide, dead straight road later, back to Sacramento for three laps around the Capitol. By the day’s end, Sagan will have taken his 16th stage.

James Raia, a veteran cycling journalist and former employee of the Sacramento Bee newspaper, tells me about the city. It’s hosted either the first or the last stage of the race every year since 2014 – if there is a single town which gives the race its shape at the moment, it’s Sacramento. The 'city of camelias' was established during the gold rush of 1849, and the old railroad yard, along with a couple of huge engines, is preserved just off the downtown area. It’s not much older than bike racing itself, so it feels both old and new. It’s also both rich and poor: techies commute from here to San Francisco and the downtown area thrives with independent coffee shops, but away from the centre, the number of rough sleepers and homeless people is striking.

Raia tells me about Sacramento’s inferiority complex. "Sacramento plays second fiddle to San Francisco,” he says. “We are the seat of government, but how can you compete with San Francisco, one of the greatest cities in the world?"

The Tour of California has a lot going for it. Amazing scenery, a big-name winner on stage 1 at least, and a lively atmosphere. Still, with the Giro d’Italia going on at the same time, the challenge is to persuade the cycling world to notice.

Stage 2: Stairway to Heavenly

The ski station which hosts the stage 2 finish at South Lake Tahoe is called Heavenly Mountain resort. It's not a summit finish in the pedantic sense of the words – Lake Tahoe is on a plateau, and Heavenly is accessed via a series of horrible steep and straight drags and steps from the town, a couple of hundred feet below. A stairway to Heavenly.

At Heavenly, the air is chilly and thin; though the sun feels strong. From almost sea level at the stage start in Rancho Cordova, on the eastern fringe of Sacramento, the peloton has climbed, climbed and climbed, almost non-stop to the high point at 167km, Carson Pass. Carson tops out at 2,615m, which is only 27m lower than the Col du Galibier. The finish is 45 rolling kilometres further on, at 2,022m. As well as the altitude, the distance has been tough for the riders – the ascent to Heavenly has been a seven-hour grind, likened by Mark Cavendish to "seven hours on a f*ckin' turbo trainer". It's not been a mountain stage like a multi-pass Alpine horror – more of a relentless steady effort. In the car park adjacent to the finish, Jumbo's Neilson Powless spins his legs out on the turbo trainer. George Bennett, 10th on  the stage but distanced by the quintet who contested the finish 30 seconds ahead – Asgreen, Van Garderen, Moscon, Pogacar and Schachmann – arrives and he's pissed off. He was beaten tactically today rather than physically, by the sheer weight of numbers EF Education First had at the front of the race. "F*ckin' EF," he spits to nobody in particular, while Powless pedals on.

Powless is Californian, born in Sacramento and based in Roseville, 20km away. His parents own a cabin in Pollock Pines, just off the route of stage 2. This is a big race for him. It's his home race, of course, but also because it's where he first came to the attention of the cycling world outside North America. Riding for Axeon in 2016, aged just 19, he came ninth overall. In 2019, it's a big race for a different reason. He's riding to support Bennett in his GC bid. That he'll come lower down the GC than when he was a teenager shows not that he's less strong, but that he's now got a different job. In 2016, he focused and peaked for this race. Now, California is just one of a series of races where he's expected to hold a steady level of high form in order to support his team's leaders. He'd only been a late selection for California. "I didn't find out I was coming until five or six days ago," he'd told me the day before.

Powless comes from aerobic royalty. His father is a triathlete; his mother, Jeanette Allred-Powless, represented Guam in the 1992 Olympic marathon. His parents used to pull him out of school so they could go and watch the Tour of California pass. 

"I remember the speed of it, and the amount of wind the peloton pushes when it rolls through. After they pass, there's a gust of wind – it feels like a car," he said. "They looked super athletic."

With the riders ascending to Heavenly in dribs and drabs, there was no such sensation of speed today, but Powless had enjoyed the stage. "I felt I was in a better mood than some of the guys around me. There were some sour faces out there, but I was having a good time."

Stage 3: Stars earning stripes

When DH Lawrence wrote, "California is absolutely selfish, very empty, but not false, and at least, not full of false effort," he could have been writing about cycling breaks.

The 2019 Tour of California is only two days old, but with a GC hierarchy established by the South Lake Tahoe stage, and the sprinters having had their opening-day run-out, both climbers and sprinters could look at the parcours of stage 3 and conclude that it was not a day for them – a middle mountain stage with a few climbs and steady gradients, topping out at 1,274m at Mount Hamilton. Too many hills for the sprinters, not enough hills for the climbers: a day, therefore, for the break to succeed.

Two riders emerged from the early skirmishes into the climbs. Deceuninck's Rémi Cavagna and Alex Hoehn of the USA national team. The working arrangement seemed to be Hoehn for the mountain points, Cavagna for the long game. This held until the HC-ranked Mount Hamilton, where Hoehn couldn't hang on to his WorldTour rival. Cavagna had no choice other than to be selfish, and ride on alone. In spite of some hairy moments on the descents, Cavagna would win by seven clear minutes; Hoehn tried to hold on for second place, but was caught in the last few kilometres by the peloton and would finish an anonymous 63rd.

After the stage, Hoehn slowly wheeled to a stop next to a soigneur, and even the effort of braking looked too much for him. "My stomach hurts so bad," he said, explaining that he'd been mainlining caffeine gels in his effort to hold off the bunch. As he painfully lowered himself to the kerb, dried salt marks staining his kit, he groaned: "Nothing doesn't hurt. It all hurts. I'm cramping everywhere." He would have to force himself to do one more painful climb, up the stairs to the podium, to be presented with the King of the Mountains jersey, which he would hold for another day. He would lose the jersey to Astana's Davide Ballerini, but at the final stage in Pasadena, Hoehn was nominated the overall most courageous rider.

The USA team punched above their weight at the Tour of California. A mix of domestic hitters and U23s, they didn't have the firepower or weight of the WorldTour teams, nor even the coherence and familiarity of the ProConti and development squads. But Hoehn said after the final stage that they could hold their heads high: "We came into the race not expecting to win, but to be able to walk away with this jersey shows we can compete against the best in the world." They had also come within a whisker of a stage win when Travis McCabe came second in Sacramento to Sagan.

But almost as soon as they had come together, the USA team went on their separate ways again. Hoehn will finish his last season as a U23 this year, for the Aevolo team. "I don't know what I'm doing next year. I don't have a team. I want to keep racing and I want to keep racing against the best in the world," he said. "Hopefully something happens."

Stage 4: The living road

The Pacific Coastal Highway, more prosaically known as State Route 1, is a feat of engineering, a ribbon of road which skirts the very edge of California for hundreds of miles. The Pacific coast doesn’t stay the same from one week to the next – it's a living, changing thing. The full force of the ocean beats against it while heavy rain, when it comes, hollows out the soil and causes landslides small and large. The road is a permanent work in progress – it's finished state is that it is unfinished. They always used to say that the moment to start painting the Forth Bridge was when the last coat had just been finished; likewise, when the latest patch on the Pacific Coastal Highway has been applied, it’s already time to work on the next one.

Eric Smith, the race’s technical director, tells me that sending the Tour of California down Route 1 is one of the biggest logistical challenges of the week. "The road changes weekly," he says. "I've been down that road 50 times, and not one time has there not been some construction going on. There are potholes, stuff that falls… We have a small army of people in front of the race with brooms, shovels, asphalt, paint in case there’s a big pothole we can’t fix. We make the road as pristine as possible for the riders."

Route 1 is also one of the most beautiful stretches of road in cycling. I could have stopped anywhere and enjoyed a spectacular view to watch the race go past. In the end I chose a parking spot on a high cliff where I could see the road snake in and out of four or five bays, just south of Big Sur. That meant I was able to watch the race approaching from miles away, dwarfed by massive hills on one side, and the huge expanse of the Pacific on the other. At this distance, the peloton was almost invisible, and I could only infer its approach from the faraway chopping of the television helicopter and the headlights of the race vehicles glinting. The sun was breaking through after heavy rain earlier, so the sea was turquoise where it was shallower. Each time the race disappeared behind a headland, it emerged more clearly as it rounded into view again, until first a small break, then the peloton came through at speed. The bunch was stretched into a long line.

The race itself wasn’t exciting in the main, as if it couldn’t compete with the grandeur of the scenery. It looked like a classic break-chase-sprint stage, and sure enough, the peloton fulfilled the first two parts of the job. But the engineers of Route 1 will tell you never to assume that a job is finished: an act of God can change everything. And so when Tejay van Garderen, the race leader, was caught up in a crash, then another crash, inside the last 10km, he first lost the race lead, then was reinstated after it was deemed the second crash was close enough to 3km to go to credit everybody involved with the same time as the winner. That Van Garderen had not technically been in the group when the second crash happened seemed to escape the notice of the race jury. Sometimes, when unforeseeable events occur, they just patch things up as best they can, for better or worse.

Stage 5: Plotting a route

The Tour of California has been flirting with extremes of weather all week. Sacramento was hot, Tahoe was above the snowline, the bunch was hit by a rainstorm on Route 1, and now, on stage 5 to Ventura, the wind is blowing. It's so strong that the sea is being whipped into white foam, and parts of the finish line infrastructure have to be taken down. There's a headwind on the finishing straight, so Iván García Cortina of Bahrain-Merida does the right thing by leaving his surge for victory in the sprint late.

The wind wasn't enough to force the cancellation of the stage, though the organisers had had more luck in Tahoe – three days after the race finished there, they had eight inches of snow.

These are possibilities that are all taken into account by technical director Eric Smith when the route is plotted. The race is a million-piece jigsaw, with potential pitfalls lurking at almost every turn of the road. He tells me how the race is put together. "The first thing we do is establish the two anchors, the start and finish of the whole race," he says. "Then we go through the list of cities who want to be part of it, and another list of cities who don't know yet that we want them to be part of it.

"I know Sacramento always want a start and a finish and we have five or six courses we can use. I know that South Lake Tahoe is a long stage and there are only two ways up there. One is Highway 50, and the other is Highway 88, and we can't take Highway 50.

"In Sacramento there's a road we use called the Old River Road, which goes out of West Sac. It's below the water level, in the levees, so when the dams hold too much water, they release it and the levees flood. Three weeks ago, you'd look west out of Sacramento and it would look like the ocean – the road we used was under five feet of water. If that was still there, I'd have to shut down the freeway and jump on that, which I never like to do because it's expensive.

"You also have to keep in mind the potential impact on cities, on traffic, on businesses and on residents. The final bell schedule for schools? You don't want to be going past a school when the bus is coming in. We did a TT in Los Angeles and I think we set the record for the most traffic congestion – we split the city in half for 10 miles – it was a huge undertaking and very expensive.

"We start building the stages up, stage by stage and look at it. Does this make sense? Is this all sprinter stages? All climber stages? You try to do a mix. So everybody has an opportunity.

"Once the course is laid out on paper, we go out and drive them. We log to a hundredth of a kilometre, every signal, crossing, to minute detail. We put the data in for average speeds and what time we're coming through."

And if all that planning still hasn't convinced a city that hosting the Tour of California won't cause too much inconvenience, Smith can pull out the big guns: "The first time you talk to a new city, they say, 'You're going to do what?' I just tell them I've closed the Golden Gate Bridge twice."

Stage 6: The giant of California

Mount Baldy rises steeply out of suburban Los Angeles – the dividing line between city and wilderness is a sudden one. To the south: endless city. To the north: the peaks of the Angeles National Forest.

With the exception of Paris-Roubaix, every great race needs a defining climb, whether big or small. The Tour de France has Alpe d'Huez, Il Lombardia has the Madonna del Ghisallo, the Tour of Flanders has the Muur van Geraardsbergen and the Giro d'Italia has the Stelvio. The Tour of California is only 14 years old, and it has reached its teenage years trying to find its identity. It has experimented with a few summit finishes, but Mount Baldy is fast emerging as its iconic fixture.

Race announcer Brad Sohner says, "Baldy is becoming the race's signature climb. There have been a few others over the years, but Baldy is perfect. It's really an Alpine climb, and it's really harder than a lot of climbs you see in Europe. A lot of Tours of California have been decided on Baldy."

Baldy is high – it reaches 1,959 metres above sea level, and a stack of hairpins gives it a lot more character than the curving drags of many of the rest of the race's climbs. It's also steep and varied, and for 2019, shrouded in cold mist.

The race has been talking for two days about Tejay van Garderen's lucky break in keeping the yellow jersey after the crashes of stage 4. His team, EF Education First, duly sets tempo through the stage. Why wouldn't they? They are the strongest team; Van Garderen is the strongest rider. But the capitulation is sudden and decisive: one moment, into the bottom of the climb, he looked comfortable. The next, he'd pulled out of the line and fallen back into defeat, and worse, doubt. Ahead, the team leadership passed seamlessly to Sergio Higuita, while the race leadership passed equally seamlessly to Tadej Pogačar, who outsprinted Higuita at the top, just in front of George Bennett.

In such moments, narratives are rewritten. The story of the race was supposed to be of Van Garderen's comeback win, and of EF finally breaking their GC duck at the Tour of California. In the space of time it took for Pogačar and Higuita to ride away from the American, the race became something different. The stages had largely been won by young riders – Asgreen, Cavagna, Fabio Jakobsen and Garcia were all 24 or under. Now the GC was headed by a 20-year-old, Pogačar, and a 21-year-old, Higuita.

This is what mountains, and cycling, can do to careers. When he was 21, Van Garderen came third in the 2010 Dauphiné, then fifth in the 2011 Tour de France. As the American, monosyllabic, disappointed and beaten, digested his day in the chilly air of the finish line area, Pogačar received the yellow jersey he would keep to the end, and was announced as an emerging star. Some fans might have remembered that Van Garderen was the future, once.

But fickle eyes quickly turned from Van Garderen to Pogačar. They call the vast sprawl of suburban Los Angeles south of the Angeles Forest the Inland Empire. Atop Mount Baldy, the Tour of California had crowned Tadej Pogačar its new emperor.

Stage 7: The soul of the race

I've been looking all week for the soul of the Tour of California. Perhaps in the last two days of the race, at Mount Baldy and in Pasadena, Los Angeles, I've found it. I'd spoken to former rider Jens Voigt on Mount Baldy. Voigt loved racing in the USA, and his last win as a pro came in the 2013 Tour of California in Avila Beach. "The soul?" Voigt asks, before reflecting a few seconds.

"I reckon it's a great connection with the fans. The race is really tough, but it's a little more relaxed. The teams are approachable, and everybody can show up, knock on the door and say, 'Hey, can I have an autograph?" Voigt points out that it's equally popular with riders, for the laid-back atmosphere. "Teams come over early to get over the jetlag and it gives the riders a bit of time for shopping, to sneak out of the hotel and go to In-N-Out Burger. When they ask at the December training camp who wants to go to the Tour of California, you get 20 arms going up for seven spots."

The race has been a postcard from California. The landscape of the Golden State is staggeringly beautiful. The flip side is that US roads tend to be fewer, and better engineered for cars than those of Europe, which has the curious effect of flattening out the racing. Better engineered for cars means wider carriageways and shallower bends, so the technical challenge of riding in the peloton is less difficult. The exciting bits tend to be short-lived and intense, and separated by long, quiet stretches, during which the only thing to look at is the scenery. However, the fans, especially on Baldy and at the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, are numerous, and the atmosphere is brilliant. In Pasadena, there's a large area given over to the race, and the fans will be able to watch both the women's and the men's events do laps of the finishing circuit. It's noisy, warm and packed. Brad Sohner, the race announcer, told me this is American cycling's USP. "It's high energy, very loud and a party atmosphere, and that reflects racing in the US. You get a guy dressed as the pope running alongside the riders. The race certainly encourages and embraces that."

In Pasadena, Jonathan Vaughters, the manager of the EF Education First team for whom Sergio Higuita finished runner-up, reflects on his long history with the race. "I think we are the race's soul," he jokes. "We've been second overall, like, 10 years in a row. Pretty incredible."

Dorothy Parker once wrote that Los Angeles is "88 suburbs searching for a city". At the midpoint of the 2019 Tour of California, I wondered whether the race was seven stages looking for a race. The backdrop had been stunning, as beautiful as any race I have ever been to. But it was easy most days to condense the racing into a headline, though the South Lake Tahoe stage and Van Garderen crash two days later had given fans plenty to talk about. However, Baldy and Pasadena had been compelling racing spectacles, allowing the overall narratives of the race to emerge: the coming of a new generation, and the confirmation of Baldy as the Tour of California's emblematic climb. If there's any sense of an inferiority complex compared to the Giro d'Italia, it's not something that the race itself seems or needs to worry about.