A second mountain top finish for Amgen Tour of California

The Amgen Tour of California rolled out the details of stages 4, 5 and 6 today, confirming a second hilltop finish for the 2011 route, with the familiar Sierra Road climb providing drama to finish of stage 4 in addition to the already announced Mt. Baldy climax on stage 7.

What stage 4 lacks in miles, only 81.8 from Livermore to San Jose, it more than makes up for in strenuous terrain. With a pair of sprinter-friendly stages under the peloton's belt, the focus returns to the GC favourites as three strenuous climbs, culminating with the first true mountain-top finish in Amgen Tour of California's six-year history, await on May 18.

The riders first head out of Livermore on Mines Rd, a 25-mile long section of the parcours both hilly and winding and the perfect opportunity for a break to become out-of-sight and out-of-mind. In 2010, the riders enjoyed a long descent into a finish in Modesto off of Mines Rd. This year, there is no similar luxury as Mines Road becomes San Antonio Canyon Rd.

After shaking things up with two more KOMs, the riders come face-to-face with the Mt. Hamilton - the Tour’s first hors catégorie climb. The two-mile ascent to the Mt. Hamilton Observatory (4,130') provides a spectacular view of San Jose and Silicon Valley and a hair-raising descent down the front side of the mountain.

After a few miles of flat riding, comes a right turn onto Sierra Road, and what follows is a 3.5-mile ascent with a 10 percent average gradient and 1,700’ feet of climbing. The finish is simply a line across a narrow, exposed road typically surrounded by herds of cattle. Who will prevail and likely take over the leader's jersey?

The Amgen Tour of California's fifth stage, 138.9 miles from Seaside to Paso Robles, provides a stunning trek down California's famed Hwy 1 through Monterey, Carmel, Pacific Grove and Big Sur. Most of stage five utilises the same parcours as the 2008 stage from Seaside to San Luis Obispo, taking the peloton across Bixby Bridge, past towering cliffs, crashing waves, lighthouses and two KOMs, before giving way to a gentler coastline.

The route of this year's stage diverges from 2008's course in the town of Cambria, however, where the peloton turns left onto Santa Rosa Creek Road. The road is narrow, twisting and overgrown with hanging vegetation as the peloton faces a constant 2-3 percent rise before kicking upwards on a 20 percent "wall". A steep and technical descent follows the summit as the peloton then rolls through famous vineyards and wineries of the Paso Robles region en route to the finishing city.

The Amgen Tour of California last finished in Paso Robles in 2009, but that year the peloton started northeast in Visalia and provided a flat, sprinter-friendly parcours won by Mark Cavendish in a bunch gallop finale. This year, a similar finish should prove unlikely.

After a one-year hiatus from the Amgen Tour of California, stage six returns to the familiar parcours of the 15-mile Solvang time trial circuit and the only race of truth in the eight-day stage race. Levi Leipheimer has dominated the event in past years, winning each of the three previous Solvang time trials in 2007-2009 en route to the Santa Rosa resident's three overall victories. Will 2011 see Leipheimer dominate yet again, or will someone else prevail against the clock and possibly assume race leadership?

Return to Cyclingnews tomorrow for additional Amgen Tour of California news when the routes for the remaining stages, 7-8, will be announced.

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