Amgen Tour of California: A superb sixth edition beckons

The sixth edition of America's biggest race, the Amgen Tour of California, will display the event's constant evolution with testing route developments and a high-calibre field of riders aiming to perform at what has become one of the highlights of the international calendar.

"Creating the route each year for the Amgen Tour of California is a difficult task, but luckily, the state of California is rich with beautiful yet challenging terrain, perfect for our race," said Andrew Messick, president of AEG Sports.

"We are really excited about this year's route as it is by far the most challenging course to date, and we are thrilled to announce our route through some really creative, unique videos that were created by the race's 15 Host Cities. Each video showcases our detailed route, as well as the communities themselves, from a local perspective."

The eight-day event's opening stage, a 118.7-mile clockwise loop around Lake Tahoe, breaks new ground as it's the first time the Amgen Tour of California opens with a challenging road race as well as the first foray outside of California in race history.

Whereas the first four editions of the Amgen Tour of California opened with prologue time trials and last year's initial stage was a sprint-friendly route won by Mark Cavendish, this year's opening salvo that starts in South Lake Tahoe takes place at altitude (the entire stage is above 6,200 ft) and features three KOMs, the last of which - to Brockway Summit - is a 1,000 ft ascent to the stage's highest point of 7,200 ft, prior to a quick descent to the finish at Northstar at Tahoe Resort in North Lake Tahoe.

Stage two, stretching 133.2 miles from Squaw Valley to the state capital of Sacramento, will provide the first opportunity for the sprinters to showcase their finishing speed. Well before the fast men make their expected kick to the finish line, the peloton will take in a bit of American history in the opening miles.

The riders begin their day in Squaw Valley, the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, and will proceed north to the town of Truckee and then west past the infamous Donner’s Pass, where pioneers met their doom in the winter months of 1846. At 7,100 ft, this will be the only KOM of stage two.

From here it will be a more than 7,000 ft of descending to the State's Capitol, which resides at a lowly 25 ft above sea level. The route will pass through Nevada City, California, the start city of last year's race, and after working its way west for several miles, the peloton will turn south and head to Sacramento, where the riders will conclude with two circuit laps capped off with a finish at the State Capitol building.

With no KOMs on tap for stage three, this, too, will likely be a day for the sprinters. The peloton begins its day in Auburn, California and will travel south 121.9 miles to its conclusion in Modesto.

After a neutral start section through Old Town Auburn, the race will begin in earnest and head south through downtown Folsom. The next 100 miles will showcase the roads of central California as the race passes through "Gold Country". The historic town of Ione (founded in 1849) will serve as the first sprint location of stage three.

Continuing south, the route will then pass by the shores of Lake Camanche; the second sprint of stage three will be in the cowboy town of Oakdale, and from there it will be a fast 17 miles to the start of two circuit laps in downtown Modesto.

The fun begins...

The 2010 Amgen Tour of California finished in Modesto on stage four where Italian sprinter Francesco Chicchi toppled the peloton's sprinters in a bunch gallop to the line.

What stage four 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 overall favourites as three testing 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 Mines Rd. This year there is no such 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 ft) 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.

Solvang starts the soul-searching

After a year's 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?

Stage seven from Claremont to Mt. Baldy will present riders with 75.8 miles of racing and the most daunting obstacle ever included in the Tour of California - a brutal final climb that ascends over 5,000 vertical feet, with more than 2,000 feet covered in the final 10km of the stage.

Starting in the college town of Claremont, the course heads immediately uphill for eight miles to the village of Baldy for the first KOM before looping back up Glendora Ridge Road for another mile of climbing. A 12-mile respite precedes a technical descent to the San Gabriel Reservoir and down into Glendora for the only sprint of the day.

The race then sends riders up the Glendora Mountain Road climb, which has been the time trial stage of the San Dimas Stage Race for nearly a decade, but for the first time since fires and erosion closed the upper portion in 2004, the full length of the 8.5 mile climb will be used in competition.

The climbing doesn't stop there, as riders face another 12 miles of gradual uphill before reaching Baldy Village for the second time. Once the riders turn onto Baldy Road, they hit three steep miles of ascending which is just a warm-up for the final push to the line.

The final 2.5 miles punishes the riders with 10 torturous switchbacks with grades so steep it will seem more like the Monte Zoncolan than Alpe d'Huez. The race's first ever high mountain finish brings the level of difficulty up to that of a Grand Tour stage, and will surely decide a worthy winner of the race.

On the final day, stage eight completes the Tour with an 80-mile dash from Santa Clarita to the home of the race's title sponsor Amgen, Thousand Oaks.

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