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Will Samuel Sanchez return to his winning ways in a stage race in an unusually hard edition of the Tour of California?

Photo: Tim De Waele/TDW Sport

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TOUR OF CALIFORNIA

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14.05.2016 @ 18:49 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The cycling world has its eyes firmly focused on Italy but this does not mean that the rest of the peloton is doing nothing. On Sunday, America's biggest bike race in sunny California will kick off and the race is both a very important target for some of the home country's best stage race riders and the first of many stage races that are used as perfect preparation for the upcoming Tour de France. This year will be no exception and while the organizers may be a little disappointed to see many GC riders skip the American race, the event boasts a formidable line of classics contenders and sprinters all ready to challenge Peter Sagan's reign on a diverse route.

 

The Tour of California was created in 2006 as the next big American stage race and while other similar projects like the Tour of Georgia and the Tour of Missouri have all been ill-fated and disappeared from the calendar after a few years of existence, the race in the western state seems to thrive as the pinnacle event in a growing domestic American scene. Many of cycling's biggest sponsors have clear interests in the American market and so their teams give the race high priority. The battle for invitations is always hard-fought between both ProTeams and the local domestic teams as it is a highly prestigious event for the world's biggest teams and the perfect opportunity to go up against the best in the world for the smaller American teams.

 

Originally held in February ,the race started out as a warm-up race for many of the biggest European teams who used the event to get going and get some racing kilometres in the legs before the biggest events in their own continent. At the same time, it was an incentive for the American riders to train hard over the winter as they had to be at the top of the game right from the beginning if they wanted to be competitive in their biggest home race. Levi Leipheimer proved year after year that he had a fantastic ability to get into peak condition on pure training and the veteran American took three wins in a row from 2007 to 2009 after having finished 6th in the inaugural event won by Floyd Landis.

 

However, the race also ended up as a mostly American affair as the European riders were not as well-prepared as the best domestic riders and in the first four years 9 of the 12 podium spots were taken by riders from the host country. Furthermore, the race was hampered by some harsh winter weather and the organizers were not able to show off sunny California in the way they had hoped. Finally, the early calendar date made it impossible to enter the high mountains that could mke the race much more intriguing.

 

For a long time, the organizers wanted to move the race to a spring date and for the 2010 edition they were finally successful. In a general calendar reshuffle, the Volta a Catalunya was moved from its traditional May date to the end of March which left a slot open for the American race. Since then the race has been held concurrently with the Giro and while it was previously a warm-up event, it has now become an important preparation race for the Tour de France.

 

The race still has some challenges to overcome. First of all it is very hard to battle with the Giro for attention and the organizers have certainly felt why the Volta a Catalunya was keen to hand over the May slot on the calendar. With added mountain stages, the race has certainly seen some more fascinating racing in recent editions and despite a number of weather-afflicted stages the race has generally had much more convenient climatic conditions.

 

Nonetheless, the new date has not really bucked the trend of the race being a mostly American affair. At this time of the year, the best stage race riders are either battling hard on the Italian roads or coming off a small mid-season break as they start to prepare for the Tour de France. The Californian event is a perfect opportunity to get in some quality racing in the build-up for the world's biggest race but very few of the Tour contenders have the level to compete for the victory at this time of the year or they have headed to altitude training camps. It was certainly a blow to the race when local hero Tejay van Garderen realized that the race is incompatible with the Tour de France and nowadays, none of the best GC riders head to California.

 

At the same time the race is still in high regard among the American riders of which many mark it out as a major season target. This makes it an uneven competition between domestic riders at their peak and a few international riders using it as a build-up event and it is no surprise to see 7 of the 9 podium spots being taken by American riders in the years 2010, 2011 and 2012. In recent years, however, things have slightly changed and last year the race had its first-ever podium without a single American rider.

 

While the race fails to attract the GC riders, it has become a highlight for many classics riders and sprinters. This year is no exception as riders like Peter Sagan, Alexander Kristoff, Mark Cavendish, John Degenkolb, Danny Van Poppel, Dylan Groenewegen, Tom Boonen Niccolo Bonifazio and Bryan Coquard spearhead a formidable list of fast finishers for the American race. If you add Greg Van Avermaet to the equation, it is clear that the lumpy stages and fast finishes will be hotly contested.

 

Last year the race was even won by a classics rider as Peter Sagan defied all expectations by winning a race that should have been too hard for him. A late change to the time trial suddenly made it a short, technical affair that was tailor-made for the Slovakian and so he rode himself into the lead by winning the TT. That prompted him to see how far he could go on the big mountain stage to Mount Baldy and while it was Julian Alaphilippe who continued his memorable season by winning the stage, the Slovakian dug extremely deep to stay within touching distance ahead of the final mountain stage. In what of the most thrilling races of the entire season, Sagan just managed to hold off Tyler Farrar in a photo finish to pick up the bonus seconds he needed to win the race, with Alahphilippe and Sergio Henao joining him on the podium. He will be back to defend his title and will again be up against Alaphilippe but there will be no Henao who is currently put on inactive status by his team.

 

The course

The Tour of California has always been a bit of a mini grand tour. There have been numerous sprit stages which explains why the race always attracts lots of fast finishers, while the GC is decided in a few mountain stages and a medium-length time trial. In the early years, the time trial was by far the most important but after the race was moved to May, the chance to go into the high mountains has made the race open to climbers too. Riders like Robert Gesink and Chris Horner who are not known as time triallists, have won the race, but of course the TT remains a very important part of the race.

 

Right from the inaugural edition in 2006, the race always followed a route heading from the north of the state to its southern part, with many of stages and race finishes having been used multiple times. The Solvang time trial, the Sierra road climb, the uphill finishes at Mount Baldy and Big Bear Lake are just some of the trademarks of the first editions of the Tour of California.

 

In 2013m the lay-out of the race was completely changed. For the first time ever, the direction was reversed in a route from south to north and the race has also invented a number of new routes and a brand-new mountaintop finish as the pinnacle stage of the race. In the last few years, the organizers have been back to the north-south format but in general they have been less traditional and there have been more creativity when it comes to the design of the stages.

 

This year the organizers have again tried to shake things up. For the second time, the riders will travel from south to north and several new finales will be included. Most notably, the race will have a new mountaintop finish on Gibraltar Road but there are more exciting novelties in the middle part of the race. In general, there will be fewer opportunities for the sprinters who will get their chance on the first day but then have to wait until the final two days to find another two sprint stages. The GC will be decided in the time trial, on Gibraltar Road and in the tricky stages 4 and 5 that has short climbs in the finale.

 

 

Stage 1:

The Tour of California has traditionally started with a stage for sprinters and it will be no different in 2016 even though there will already be a significant climb on the first day. The riders will cover 175km with start and finish in San Diego and after a flat start along the coast in the city, they will head into the mountains. After a gradually riding section, they will go up the category 1 climb of Honey Springs Road (9.5km, 5.5%) whose top comes at the 88km mark. From here they will turn around and head back along descending and flat roads to the finish at Sea World in the city centre.

 

Honey Springs Roads is a tough climb but it comes very early in the stage. As everybody will be keen to ease themselves into the race, we doubt that any team will go full gas on the climb. Hence, the sprinters should be able to survive and we expect a bunch sprint on the opening day of the race.

 

 

 

Stage 2:

The Tour of California always has lots of opportunities for the sprinters but often the stages with flat finales include a significant amount of climbing. That was the case on the opening stage and it will also be the case for stage 2 in which the climbs come much closer to the finish.

 

At just 148.5km, it is a very short stage that will bring the riders from South Pasadena to Santa Clarita. Both stages are located on the outskirts of the mountains and so it is no surprise that there will be lots of climbing on the menu. Climbing out of South Pasadena, the riders will go up the category 1 climb of Angelest Crest Highway (14.1km, 5.1%) whose top comes at the 22.5km mark and then s hilly section leads to the category 2 Upper Big Tujunga Canyon Road (7.9km, 4.5%). A long descent leads back towards the plains and the finish in Santa Clarita but the riders will make a small deviation from the direct route to tackle the final two challenges, the category 2 climbs on Little Tujunga Canyon Road (5km, 6.9% and 2.3km, 7.6%) respectively. From the top of the final climb, there are 24.5km of mainly flat roads that lead to Santa Clarita.

 

The final two climbs are pretty tough and will be way too hard for almost all the sprinters. However, Peter Sagan will have his eyes on this stage and he will be the overwhelming favourite to come out on top in a reduced bunch sprint.

 

 

 

Stage 3:

Last year the climbers had the upper hand as the final GC stage was the queen stage. This year things have been turned around as the time trial will decide the battle for the overall win. In 2016, the queen stage comes already on the third day and will offer the biggest chance for the climbers to make a difference in a brand-new summit finish on Gibraltar Road.

 

The 167.5km stage will bring the riders from Thousand Oaks to the top of Gibraltar Road. There are two early climbs, the category 3 Potero Road (1.4km, 6.9%) and Westlake Boulevard (3.2km, 7.8%) as the rider head to the coast but from there, the stage is completely flat as the riders will follow the coastal road for most of the day. They will briefly head inland to go up the category 3 Casitas Pass Road (3km, 5.7%) at the 121km mark but then it will be back to the coast. It will all be a warm-up though as the riders will climb the 12km to the top of the HC climb of Gibraltar Road in the finale. With an average gradient of 8%, it is a really tough climb.

 

Gibraltar Road may not be a summit finish in the high mountains but on paper, it seems to be one of the hardest climbs in the history of the race. This means that it a stage for the real climbers and as the only summit finish in the race, this is where the light riders have to make a difference. This is a stage for the riders who really excel on the tough climbs and should see the GC stars come to the fore.

 

 

 

Stage 4:

There will be just two mores chance for the climbers to make a difference but while stage 3 was one for the real mountain goats, the new stage 4 is more for punchy classics specialists. At 217km, it is a very long stage that will bring the riders from Morro Bay to Laguna Seca and even though both the start and finishing cities are new, most of the stage is pretty classic. It consists of a long run along the scenic Highway One almost all day. It is mostly flat but as some may know, thereare some undulations along the way. There are category 3 climbs at the 72km (2.8km, 4.3%), 77km (3km, 4.7%) and 142km (2.2km, 5.4%) marks respectively. However, the real challenges com when the riders leave the coast just before the city of Monterey. After a short flat section, they will tackle the category 2 climb of Laurens Grade (5.5km, 5.7%) whose top comes just 8km from the finish. A short descent leads to the category 3 Mazda Raceway climb (1.1km, 10.3%) and from the top, there are only 2.5km of mainly flat roads to the finish.

 

The wind could play a role on Highway One and the riders will have to be very attentive to have a chance to fight for the win in a finale that is tailor-made for Ardennes classics riders. Laureles Grade is not very steep but it will whittle the peloton down before the puncheurs and GC riders will make their moves on the final climb. For Greg Van Avermaet, this is one of his two big goals of the race but it will be hard to beat Peter Sagan in a finale that is tailor-made for him. Julian Alahilippe will try to gain a few seconds in the GC battle. For the less explosive GC riders, it will be difficult to keep up with the punchy guys and they could lose a few seconds here.

 

 

 

Stage 5:

The Tour of California has traditionally been a sprint festival but the 2016 edition is one for the puncheurs. They already had the chance in stage 4 and they will get an opportunity to get revenge already one day later in the longest stage of the race that has an uphill finish on a short climb.

 

At 212km, the stage will bring the riders from Lodi in the flat part of the state to South Lake Tahoe at more than 2000mof altitude. It’s a long northeasterly run that will bring the riders into the mountains. The first part takes place along the plains but then it’s a long, gradual ascent for almos5 100km of the Carson Pass Road. As it’s more of a gradual ascending section than a real climb, there is no KOM sprint at the top but there will be two categorized climbs in the subsequent lumpy section, the category 2 Kirkwoods (3.9km, 6%) and Carson Pass (4.7km, 4.6%). From there, rolling and descending roads lead to South Lake Tahoe where the stage will end at the top of a category 3 climb that averages 5.9% over 1.7km.

 

It will be a very long day in the saddle and so it could be a chance for a breakaway. However, it’s another great opportunity for the Ardennes specialists and Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet will both have red-circled an uphill sprint that is tailor-made for them. The sprinters may be able to survive the huge amount of climbing throughout the day but will have little chance in a finale that should again see the puncheurs come to the fore, with Julian Alaphilippe again hoping to gain some time on a few key rivals.

 

 

 

 

Stage 6:

The Tour of California always has a medium-length time trial that plays a huge role in determining the winner of the race. This year it comes late in the race on day 6 and as the final GC stage of the race, it is very likely to show who’s going to add the 2016 edition of the race to his palmares.

 

As said, the organizers often use well-known stages, especially for the time trial. For several years, the Solvang TT was a classic and this year it will be a return to the Folsom time trial that was won by Bradley Wiggins in dominant fashion in 2014. It’s a 20.3km out-and-back course that mostly takes place along the Folsom Lake and it offers very few technical challenges. The first part is slightly uphill, the middle section is flat and the finale is slightly descending as the riders go back to the start-finish area.

 

In 2104, Wiggins beat Rohan Dennis and Taylor Phinney by 44 and 52 seconds respectively and the result of that stage proved what kind of riders can do well here. This is one for the big, powerful specialists and it is nothing like the short, technical time trial that was won by Peter Sagan in 2015.

 

 

 

Stage 7:

The sprinters have had to be patient in this year’s Tour of California. They are likely to have had a chance on the first stage but most of them will have to wait until stage 7 to get their second opportunity. They may even be left disappointed again as the penultimate day is far from easy.

 

The stage takes place over 175.5.km and they will be very tough. There are a total of 6 climbs on the menu and it starts right from the early part with the category 3 Harrison Grade Road (1.9km 6.9% at the 19.5km mark. A flat section leads to the quartet of the category 1 King Ridge Road (1.9km, 11.6), category 3 King Ridge Road (1.3km, 8.5%), category 2 Hauser Bridge Road (2.8km, 8.2%) and category 3 Seaview Road (1.8km, 7.2%) which come in quick succession. From the final of those challenges, there are still 88km to go and they are mainly flat or descending, with the category 2 Coleman Vallery Road (2.5km, 7.9%) 52.2km from the line being the only challenge. The final part is completely flat as the stage ends with a few laps of a flat circuit in Santa Rosa.

 

This stage has some significant climbing but it mainly comes in the first part so most of the sprinters will probably survive. As they haven’t had many chances, they will do their best to make it a bunch sprint but it won’t be easy. The tough course means that a very strong breakaway could go clear in the early part and as the sprint teams can only real start their chase late in the stage, it could very well be a day for an attacker.

 

 

 

Stage 8:

The 2016 Tour of California has been a tough one for the sprinters but at least they have one incentive to travel to America’s biggest race. As it is often the case in the race, the final day is for the fast finishers and while it has sometimes included a bit of climbing, stage 8 of the 2016 edition is completely flat.

 

The short 138km stage starts and finishing in Sacramento and will see the riders travel along flat roads to the southern outskirts of the city. Here they will turn around and head back along equally flat roads to the city centre where they will end the race by doing three laps of a flat 3.5km circuit.

 

As the sprinters haven’t had many chances, there will be no room for surprises on the final stage. This is a typical short, flat stage at the end of a week-long stage race and it has big bunch sprint written all over it. With the typical wide roads in American and a very short distance, it will be a day for the pure sprinters with the highest speed.

 

 

 

The favourites

Last year Peter Sagan took a surprise win in the race but there will be no room for the Slovakian this time around. The 2016 Tour of California is harder than ever before and it is like a mini grand tour that suits the real stage race specialists. In 2015, Sagan benefited from the change to the time trial which suddenly made it an affair for technically strong prologue specialists. This year the TT is one for the real specialists so Sagan will both lose time here and on Gibraltar Road, meaning that the Slovakian has already shelved all his GC ambitions before he has even started the race.

 

As said, the race should be one for the versatile stage race riders who can both do well in a relatively flat time trial that is mostly about power, and on Gibraltar Road which is a proper climb for pure climbers unlike many of the relatively easy, gradual ascent that are often found in America. Those two stages will be the key days but there will be opportunities for the punchy climbers to gain a few seconds in stages 4 and 5 too. Finally, it will be important to have a strong team at your side as there is always a risk of windy conditions in some of the coastal sections.

 

Several of the biggest teams go into the race with a sprint focus and only a few climbers. However, one team stands out. For the GC, BMC have by far the strongest roster as they have no less than three potential winners of the race. Rohan Dennis, Samuel Sanchez and Brent Bookwalter all have the potential to go for GC here. It is hard to say who will do best but there is a very big chance that the team will have the winner at the end of the race.

 

Samuel Sanchez probably stands out as the biggest favourite. This year the Spaniard has returned to form at a time when we actually thought that Father Age had caught up with him. However, he was excellent in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco where he finished sixth overall and won a stage and then did his best classics for years, most notably with his fourth place in Liege-Bastogne-Liege. There aren’t many riders in this race who can both time trial and climb with the bet but Sanchez fits the bill. He is not a real TT specialist but he can gain time on most of the climbers on this kind of course. Furthermore, he should be one of the best climbers here. The main question is what kind of form he has as he hasn’t raced since Liege and has probably had a small break, with the Tour de France being his next big goal.

 

Rohan Dennis is the big question mark. The Australian has been ill this spring so he has barely raced. He returned to racing in Yorkshire where he was solid, albeit unspectacular. He is back at full health and should be a lot better here. However, to defend himself on a long climb like Gibraltar Road, he needs to be at 100% of his capabilities and as his main goal is the TT in Rio, he has probably not focused too much on his climbing. On the other hand, he hopes to get selected for the Tour and so he needs to be climbing at a solid level. He will probably crush the opposition in the TT and then it will be about limiting the losses on Gibraltar Road. If he climbing like he did at the USA Pro Challenge last year, he will definitely win this race.

 

The biggest rival for BMC could be last year’s runner-up Julian Alaphilippe. The Frenchman is known as a classics rider but last year he suddenly turned himself into a climber by winning the Mount Baldy stage. In the end, he lost the race due to bonus seconds and now he is eager to make up for the disappointment. He is going for GC in this race and we are curious to see what he can do. He will lose time in the power time trial as he can only do good TTs on short, technical courses and it will all come down to whether he can win on Gibraltar Road. Last year we would never have given him any chance in a big mountaintop finish but he just keeps surprising everybody. After his bout of mononucleosis during the winter, he managed to get into form for the classics and he will probably just get stronger as he continues his recovery. He sets an optimistic tone for the race which indicates that his form is good. If he climbs like he did 12 months ago, he will probably win the queen stage and if he can limit his losses on stage 6 and contest the punchy finishes in stage 4 and 5, he could very well win this race.

 

Another big threat for BMC is Lawson Craddock. The American was third her in 2014 but failed in 2015 when he was just coming back from injury. This year he has been better than ever before though. He climbed with the best in Pais Vasco but did a surprisingly poor time trial. On paper, he has the complete package as he can both time trial and climb but he still needs to prove that he can return to his former level in the TT. If he can do well in Folsom and climb like he did in Pais Vasco, he will be hard to beat in this race.

 

Brent Bookwalter is the third BMC card. For years, the American was a solid domestique but he suddenly emerged as a GC contender in last year’s Tour of Utah and USA Pro Challenge. This year he confirmed his potential in Europe with a great ride in support of Tejay van Garderen at the Ruta del Sol but he has not been at the same level since then. However, this race is his big goal and a rare chance to ride for himself so he will be very motivated. He is a very good time triallist and should be able to gain time on most in stage 6. He will try to defend himself on Gibraltar Road but that is definitely possible if he rides like he did last autumn.

 

Katusha are here with Jurgen Van den Broeck and Tiago Machado who can both do well. The Belgian is probably their best card as he is the best climber of the pair. He has not been at his former level for more than two years though and it remains to be seen if he will ever again show the strength that allowed him to finish in the top 5 at the Tour de France. He is definitely not at his best yet but he has improved a lot in the time trials and this means that he is very likely to be one of the best GC riders in stage 6. Nowadays, the climbing is his weak point but in a race where most of the good climbers are not very good time triallist, he should be a strong GC contender.

 

Machado is a second GC card for Katusha but he has not been climbing at his former level since he joined the Russian team. He is a good time triallist and should gain time in stage six but he is probably not climbing well enough to win the race.

 

Peter Kennaugh will get a rare chance to lead Sky in a stage race. The Briy is one of the most inconsistent riders in the peloton so you never know which version you will get. He has been ill for most of the sprint but actually did a pretty good Tour de Yorkshire as a domestique. He will lose time in the TT but if he is at his best level on the climbs, he can definitely win on Gibraltar Road.

 

Gianni Moscon is a second option for Sky. The Italian has had a remarkable neo-pro season. He took his own chance when he finished on the podium at Coppi e Bartali and has featured in the finales as a support rider even in the biggest classics. He is a great climber and in Yorkshire he proved that the form was still good. In fact, he might even have won the race if he had been riding for himself. The TT is his weak point but he should be able to limit his losses.

 

For the domestic riders, the Tour of the Gila is always the big test and it proved that Rob Britton is ready to do well. The Canadian was on the podium at the USA Pro Challenge last year and as he can both climb and time trial, he can do well here. However, the climbs are harder here than they were in Colorade and even though he should do a good TT, he is probably not climbing well enough to win.

 

Lachlan Morton won the Tour of the Gila and is in great form. The Australian is finally proving his full climbing potential and he could actually win on Gibraltar Road. However, he will lose too much time in the TT even though he actually did a solid time trial in the Tour of the Gila.

 

Unitedhealthcare are here with a three-pronged attack with Janez Brajkovic, Daniel Jaramillo and Matthew Busche. Jaramillo is the in-form climber at the moment as he was strong in the Tour of the Gila but like Morton he will lose too much time in the TT. The same goes for Busche. Brajkovic is not the time triallist he once was and he was not climbing very well last week, confirming the inconsistency he has shown in recent years.

 

Direct Energie are here with Romain Sicard. On paper, the race should suit him well as he has improved his TT skills a lot and is a solid climber. However, he is rarely in very good condition at this time of the season and he hasn’t shown much form yet, with the Tour de France being his big goal.

 

***** Samuel Sanchez

**** Rohan Dennis, Julian Alaphilippe

*** Lawson Craddock, Brent Bookwalter, Jurgen Van den Broeck, Gianni Moscon

** Peter Kennaugh, Tiago Machado, Rob Britton, Lachlan Morton, Daniel Jaramillo, Romain Sicard

* George Bennett, Peter Stetina, Janez Brajkovic, Julian Arredondo, Haimar Zubeldia, Tao Geoghegan-Hart, Laurens Ten Dam, Jacques van Rensburg, Maxime Bouet, Petr Vakoc, Fabrice Jeandesboz, Jonathan Clarke, Rob Squire

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