Even as he was dominating with three successive wins at the Amgen Tour of California, Levi Leipheimer was very vocal about his desire for a true mountain top finish for America's premier stage race. Last October, when the organizers announced a stage to the Mt. Baldy ski station, the race had its first legitimate summit finish.
"We decided about a year ago that we were going to do it; have a true mountain top finish," said president of AEG Sports Andrew Messick. "We hadn't, at that point, figured out where. You have to really want it because they are hard to organize. They are logistically complicated: You have to deal with power, you have to deal with access to telephones, you have to deal with how you are going to take care of your VIPs, hospitality. There are a lot of moving parts and it is really, really hard when you are doing it on top of a mountain.
"One of the reasons we moved to spring is to be able to get into the high mountains. If you are going to get into the high mountains you might as well finish on top of one," said Messick.
The 75.6 mile penultimate stage, which starts on May 21 in the "trees and Ph.Ds" town of Claremont, has 11,000 feet of climbing and gets ugly almost from the start. When the peloton hits Mount Baldy Road at mile five, the first of a long set of 10%+ ramps, some as long as one mile, takes the riders up 2,500 feet to Mount Baldy Village.
"Just riding out of town here [at the start] guys with tired legs, guys with flagging motivation are really going to pay and they are going to pay big time," said three-time US National Cyclo-cross Champion Tim Johnson who has ridden the Tour of California since its inception.
Rather than continue directly to the ski area the route hangs a sharp left and heads over the day's first KOM and out onto Glendora Ridge Road. A roller coaster ride on one of Southern California's most popular cycling roads leads back out of the mountains and to the base of Glendora Mountain Road at mile 47.
"The [Mt Baldy Road] climb itself, if you just did the climb, it's just not that bad. But, when you turn on Glendora Mountain Road and realize that you have two hours of climbing to go, that's rough. Even the best guys are going to be suffering and it is 'only' 77 miles," said Johnson.
While the remaining 30 miles to the Mount Baldy summit are predominantly uphill it is the final five miles of Mount Baldy Road to the finish at over 6,300 feet above sea level that has been causing the most buzz since the announcement of the route. Some have compared this section to the Tour de France's famed l'Alpe d'Huez ascent, which is a bit of a reach, but there is no denying that the climbing is steep.
The last three miles includes many switchbacks and averages 10% with the last half mile at a brutally steep 12-16%. The locals call this final section "The Bowling Alley". It is so steep that when the road is icy, cars simply cannot stop going downhill if they lose control.
HTC-Highroad rider Caleb Fairly describes the soon-to-be-legendary last three miles. "It is really hard. For sure the best guy in the race will win, there is not doubt about that. It is wicked hard. Guys will be using compact cranks to get to top."
Garmin-Cervélo's Dave Zabriskie, who has finished second overall at the Amgen Tour of California three times and is one of the pre-race favorites, gave his assessment of the final three miles. "Most of the climbs in Europe you have recovery in the switchbacks. The switchbacks on this climb actually kick up more. It is a very interesting climb. Difficult."
Zabriskie commented on the arduous nature of the stage. "It is definitely a key stage. There is going to be carnage on the day. There are going to be guys being dropped in the first couple of kilometres. It will be a tough day even for the favorites. I would say that this is the day the race is won."
Allan Peiper, directeur sportif of the HTC-Highroad squad, predicted how the stage will play out. "I think this will be a critical stage yes, but possibly a stage where the leader's team has to defend and that will make it even more difficult because of the difficulty of the stage. I think it will make for a really open stage and it will be really exciting."
Amateurs preview with L'Etape
Amateur cyclists were given the opportunity to ride the entire stage as part of the inaugural L'Etape du California. Based on the highly successful formula used for the Tour de France's "L'Etape du Tour" 1,450 riders tested themselves two weeks before the pro peloton takes to the streets.
Several pros, including Dave Zabriskie, Caleb Fairly and Tim Johnson, mixed it up with amateurs from across the US and Canada. Riders were timed on the final two of the route's three KOMs and the total of both times were used to award a king and queen of the mountains.
Jon Hornbeck of Murrieta, who was also the first overall finisher in four hours and twenty four minutes, was the King of the Mountain. Local resident Amber Gaffney of Claremont was the Queen of the Mountain.
The 21-year-old Hornbeck, who only started racing last year, but recently upgraded to USA Cycling's top amateur category (Category 1), is hoping his results are a portent of things to come.
"Honestly, I want to be there [riding the Amgen Tour of California] in a couple of years. I came out here last year and watched it at Big Bear and I was a Category 3. It was awesome watching the pros climb. It really motivates you a lot more. To come here and do this, the actual course, to win it was really cool."
The Mount Baldy stage is the most anxiously anticipated stage in this year's Amgen Tour of California and for good reason. America's flagship professional cycling race finally has a true mountain top finish. "This is what people want," said Messick. "They want decisive stages. It's what the athletes want. It is what the fans want."