The eighth year of the Amgen Tour of California brings "one of the most, if not the most challenging courses to date", according to race organizer Kristin Bachochin of AEG, who opened the proceedings at the pre-race press conference in Escondido today. For the first time the race will start in Southern California and head north, and with that switch the race incorporates new areas, one of which is the desert town of Palm Springs, where the overall contenders will get their first major test.
BMC's Tejay van Garderen, one of the main favorites for the general classification, admitted that he hadn't previewed the uphill finish in Palm Springs, where the finish is a 3.7-mile ascent that averages almost 10%.
"The one stage I didn't recon is stage 2, and from what I'm hearing it's going to catch a lot of people by surprise," he said. The other two decisive days will be the Mt. Diablo mountain top finish and the time trial in San Jose.
"I got a chance to check out the time trial course and Diablo, and the time trial is going to be interesting. It's a normal time trial for the first 27km and then a 3km wall. It's going to be a battle of equipment, gearing, deciding whether to take a bike change or sacrifice weight for aerodynamics, or vice versa. It's going to be a lab experiment, a science test."
According to van Garderen, the very nature of cycling means that it is impossible to predict who will challenge for the win, but he expects Michael Rogers (Saxo-Tinkoff), the 2010 Tour of California winner, David Zabriskie (Garmin-Sharp) who has been second overall, and Francisco Mancebo to be on his list of riders to watch. "It's kind of an unknown. A lot of the usual suspects aren't here, they are either at the Giro or taking a rest period. It's still going to be exciting racing."
Reigning US road champion Timmy Duggan (Saxo-Tinkoff), thinks Sunday's opening stage, which heads from Escondido up and over the mile-high summit of Palomar Mountain, will be the first unpredictable day because of the course and the team tactics that may play out in establishing the race's first leader.
"We had a look at the Escondido stage, and it is not going to be a guaranteed sprint, and not guaranteed GC showdown. On the first stage of the race when there's no leader, and a lack of control, it will really make it interesting," Duggan said.
The first few stages should also be a big shock to the system for the riders who have been enduring a brutally cold spring in Europe, where rain, sleet and even snow plagued the early season.
"You have to force the body to get used to it," said RadioShack's Jens Voigt of the heat. "One of the reasons I ask the team to come here a few days early is to get over the jet lag and get used to the new climate."
Voigt said he is actually welcoming the warm weather. The German is one of only a few riders who will have competed in all eight editions of the Amgen Tour of California, and he said he has kept coming back not just for the sunshine, but because the race has evolved into a world class event over the years.
"The only next step is to cut the Giro [d'Italia] down and give another week to the Tour of California," Voigt said. "It's a great race, and one of the reasons I keep coming back and choosing it over the Giro, I love to be here, and the fans show up in large numbers. Every year we have millions of supporters."
Van Garderen doesn't expect that the crowds will be any smaller than before the Lance Armstrong case revealed the extent to which doping has plagued the sport of cycling in its past.
"I like to hope the fans can move past what's happened in that era of cycling - it's a long time ago now. I think the sport of cycling has taken its hits, but hopefully they don't lose faith in us now. I think you're going to see a million people on Mt. Diablo and you're going to realize the sport is still strong, that people still love it, they're still going to be out there running half naked by us. I think the sport is still strong."
Those big crowds are part of the reason that AEG brought in its chief security officer Matt Bettenhausen to reassure the media and the fans that the organizers are doing everything to assure the safety of the race and the public in light of the Boston Marathon bombing.
Bettenhausen has worked with the Department of Homeland Security and is bringing the agency's newest operations technologies to track and follow up on any incidents.
"We want to ensure that we are doing everything possible," he said. "Safety and security is our top priority. ... We are going to enhance security throughout the race, and we ask the public for their patience, cooperation and assistance. You might see additional security measures, but as always we ask if you see something, say something. We ask the public to be aware of their surroundings and report unattended baggage to officials. And of course, always call 911 first in case of an emergency."