Gibraltar climb still in the works for Tour of California despite fires, mudslides

The Amgen Tour of California organisers today announced the details of the routes for the 2018 men's and women's races, with Long Beach hosting the first stage, and Sacramento once again hosting the final stages for both races on Saturday, May 19.

Organisers warn that the route of stage 2, already announced as the key GC stage, is subject to change due to road damage caused by deadly back-to-back natural disasters in the region. In December, the largest wildfire on record in Southern California swept through Ventura County. In January, heavy rains battered the damaged landscape, causing massive mudslides that washed away homes and damaged roadways.

The route was planned to travel through Montecito, where 21 people perished in mudslides on January 9, but organisers say this could change.

"With the recent fires and flooding in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, there will likely be changes to a section of the Stage 2 route that passes through Camarillo and Montecito as several bridges are being assessed for repair or replacement," organisers said.

The stage 2 finish on the climb up Gibraltar Road north of Santa Barbara is still in the plan, despite it being on the perimeter of the charred region. The 6km ascent at an average 10 per cent grade should once again be a decisive day for the men's overall, as it was when Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) won there in 2016 and went on to take the overall victory.

The 34.7km stage 4 time trial in San Jose will provide another key opportunity for the overall contenders.

Bora-Hansgrohe's Rafal Majka, second overall last year, confirmed to Cyclingnews last month at the Vuelta a San Juan that he will return to California this year, as did Trek-Segafredo's California local Peter Stetina, who was second to Alaphilippe on Gibraltar in 2016.

California has gained a reputation as a place for the fast men, however, and the line up of sprint days is equal to the line-up of riders that have so far committed to the start line, citing the race as crucial for their build-up to the Tour de France in July. World champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), the record holder for Tour of California stage wins, will return to defend his "King of California" moniker.

“Building up to the Tour de France with a strong performance at the Amgen Tour of California is always an important goal," Sagan said in a statement released by the race. "The race is one of my favourite competitions every year – always challenging competition and such beautiful scenery – and I'm excited to return and try for more stage wins this year."

He'll face tough tests from two other top sprinters who have confirmed they'll be in California again this year: Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) and Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin).

"I'm excited about the season ahead and will be working hard to make the 2018 season a hugely successful one," Cavendish said. "The Amgen Tour of California has always been an incredibly special race for me, and it will once again be a priority in my race calendar this year in the lead-up to the Tour de France."

The seven-stage men's WorldTour race begins May 13 with a circuit race in Long Beach before heading north toward the finish at the state capitol, while the women's three-stage WorldTour race starts in Elk Grove on May 17 with an opener that is scheduled to finish just before the men's fifth stage rolls into town.

Stage 1: Long Beach Circuit Race - 133km

The 11.2km circuit will start and finish on Shoreline Drive near Shoreline Village and the Long Beach Convention Center. The 11 laps of the circuit will utilize portions of Shoreline Drive, Ocean Avenue and Pine Street. Several Long Beach neighbourhoods will get a ring-side seat as the peloton races through Bixby Park and Bluff Park, as well as Franklin, Hellman East Village and Downtown.

Stage 2: Ventura to Gibraltar Road - 155km

Ventura will host its first stage start, while Gibraltar Road returns again after a popular introduction to the race in 2016. A neutral roll out feet from the Pacific Ocean on Ventura Pier will get things rolling before the peloton heads north through Oxnard, Santa Paula and Ojai. Three KOMs await the riders, who will take on 2,347 metres of elevation gain on the stage, with the final trek to the top of Gibraltar featuring a 945-metre climb over the final 12.5km of the stage.

Stage 3: King City to Laguna Seca (Monterey County) - 197km

For the second time in race history, the finish of this stage will take place on the famous 'Corkscrew' turn of Laguna Seca Raceway, where Sagan won in front of BMC Racing's Greg Van Avermaet and Dimension Data's Nathan Haas in 2016. The start in King City will mark the first time the town hosts a stage, this one featuring six KOMs over 197km and 2,530 metres of elevation gain.

The final KOM will overlook the finish. After a descent to the racetrack, the racers will face a 1km, 16 per cent climb to the track entrance, then two challenges on the track that will play a factor in the finish: the final climb of the day up to Turn 6 and “The Corkscrew," which features an 18 per cent descent that drops 5.5 stories in just 137 metres.

Stage 4: San Jose (Indvidual Time Trial) - 37.4km

This relatively long individual time trial will likely provide the second reset of the general classification pecking order established on Gibraltar Road. Majka lost his overall lead to eventual GC winner George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) last year in the shorter time trial last year at Big Bear Lake, but the Polish Bora-Hansgrohe rider appears to have worked on his TT form in the off-season, recently taking third in the San Juan time trial.

Silicon Valley has hosted three of the race's time trails over the years, but it is the first time San Jose suburb Morgan Hill - home to bike maker Specialized - will host a start and finish, which are within metres of each other on the course. The route features one moderate climb, and, as always, wind could be a factor. The course will head out of Morgan Hill on Dunne Road and then pick up Oak Glen Road around the north side of Chesbro Reservoir to McKean to Bailey to Santa Teresa Boulevard. Riders will then head due south onto Hale and the finish on Monterey Road.

Stage 5: Stockton to Elk Grove - 176km

Stockton returns as a host city for the first time since 2007, with the start of the men's fifth stage leaving from the waterfront sports arena in Stockton about an hour after the women start their opening stage in Elk Grove.

The men's race will head northeast into the historic gold mine area around Amador County, Buena Vista and the town of Ione. With just one small climb on the 176km stage, this will be a flat, fast day that will most certainly see another opportunity for the sprinters at the finish along the new Aquatic Centre in Elk Grove. The crowd will have already watched the women's stage 1 finish in Elk Grove with a likely bunch kick of their own.

Stage 6: Folsom to South Lake Tahoe - 196.5km

This penultimate stage is a tricky one on paper and doesn't lend itself to another day for the sprinters, although a group of escapees could find this stage to be their lucky day. Toms Skujins, riding for Cannondale at the time, won a similar stage here from a breakaway that slowly whittled itself down to a select few.

Folsom hosted time trials at the Tour of California in 2014 and 2016, but for 2018, the city will host the stage that could be a fly in the ointment for the GC teams. Any riders looking for a last chance to move up the general classification will have to make something happen here.

The stage starts on Folsom’s newly completed Johnny Cash Trail, which honours the memory of the singer and his historic performance at the Folsom prison in 1968. The stage features more than 4,876 metres feet of climbing, four KOMs (including Kingsbury Grade for the first time) and an uphill finish. While Folsom's elevation is just 83 metres, the peloton will pass 2,621 metres as they crest Carson Pass and will finish in South Lake Tahoe at 2,011 metres.

Stage 7: Sacramento to Sacramento - 146km

Sacramento has become a familiar stop for the Tour of California, hosting the race nine times in all, including the finish in 2016.

The day of racing in the state Capitol starts with the men heading out across the Tower Bridge into race-friendly West Sacramento. An hour later, the women will begin the final stage of their three-day race on the Capitol circuit.

After passing through West Sacramento, the men will follow the Sacramento River into the city of Woodland, then race over several rural roads in Yolo County. An intermediate sprint in Winters will see the race turn east and toward the final finish in Sacramento. This 146km stage is a sprinter’s paradise, with no KOMs and virtually no elevation gains.

The last time the race finished here in 2016, Mark Cavendish claimed final victory ahead of Sagan and Alexandre Kristoff, while Alaphilippe took the overall win ahead of BMC Racing's Rohan Dennis and Brent Bookwalter.

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