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 kicks 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 sprinters and classics contenders spearheaded by Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan, John Degenkolb, Thor Hushovd, Tom Boonen and Matthew Goss.
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 stage 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 are always hard-fought between both ProTeams and the domestic teams as it is both 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 make the race much more intriguing.
For a long time, the organizers wanted to move the race into 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.
However, 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.
This has been made even more evident this year as defending champion Tejay van Garderen has decided to skip the event. Set to lead BMC at the Tour de France, the American cannot allow himself to have a peak of condition in May and this has clearly evidenced why the Tour of California will never be able to attract the strongest riders while they are at their peak. Leipheimer learnt the lesson in the hard way as his wish to go for glory in California always meant that he came up short in France.
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 international riders using it as a build-up event and it is no surprise to see 8 of the 12 podium spots being taken by American riders in the years 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. However, the new calendar date has stopped the Leipheimer dominance and the veteran only ended 3rd, 2nd and 6th (in an impressive comeback from an injury) in his final three participations.
While the race may have been unable to attract the best GC riders for whom the timing is not very convenient, it has always had a solid list of sprinters and classics riders in its line-up. For these riders, the race comes as a perfect time to restart their season after a short break and for them, it is easier to perform even though they are not yet in peak condition. This year's start list is probably the strongest ever as Peter Sagan, John Degenkolb, Mark Cavendish, Thor Hushovd and Matthew Goss are ready to battle it out in the sprints while Tom Boonen and Niki Terpstra will both use the race to ease back into competition. The line-up has been further boosted by Bradley Wiggins' decision to make the race a big target and for once, the race can present a non-American race favourite.
After Robert Gesink's 2012 victory, the race was again won by an American in 2013 when Tejay van Garderen finally won a major stage race. Having taken second behind big revelation Janier Acevedo on the brutally steep climb in Greater Palm Springs, he used a Radioshack attack in the crosswinds to take the leader's jersey off the Colombian. He consolidated his lead by dominating the time trial and finally he defended himself in the big summit finish on Mount Diablo to win the race ahead of Rogers and Acevedo. As said, van Garderen won't be back to defend his title and Rogers won't be there either, with the Australian riding the Giro to get some racing kilometres in his legs after his long break. However, Acevedo will be back in action and the Colombian will be eager to again make his mark after having joined Garmin-Sharp over the winter.
When it was still a February race, the Tour of California was dominated by the time trialists as the early calendar slot made it impossible to enter the high mountains and so the race was often decided in the race against the clock. Since moving to May, the race has been able to include some big summit finishes and since then it has evolved into more of a mini grand tour where it is the combination of TT skills and climbing legs that determine the winner of the race. With the Californian climbs not being very steep, however, the time trialists have always had the upper hand.
In addition to the decisive stages for the GC, the race has always included quite a few opportunities for the sprinters and it is no coincidence that they have been able to attract so many fast finishers. This year it is no different and in addition to two summit finishes and a time trial, there are 5 stages that could end in some kind of sprint finishes - even though some of them are rather tough affairs.
Right from the inaugural edition in 2006, the race always followed a route heading from the north of the stage 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 recent editions of the Tour of California.
Last year the lay-out of the race was completely changed. Not only was the direction reversed in a route from south to north, the race also invented a number of new courses and twp brand-new summit finish as the pinnacle stages of the race. This year the race is back to its previous north-south format and even though the race won't return to the key sites of the past few years like Mount Baldy and Big Bear Lake, several parts of the route have been tested in past editions.
The Tour of California usually kicks off with a stage for the sprinters and that hasn't changed for the 2014 edition of the race. On the first day, the riders will tackle a 193.1km course in the area north of Sacramento. After a completely flat start, the riders reach the hills which make the terrain significantly more undulating and the riders will go up two bigger and several smaller climbs at the midpoint of the race. One of them, the climb in Auburn (2.8km, 8%) will determine the first holder of the mountains jersey but from its top, almost 100km still remain. They are almost all downhill or entirely flat and so it will be virtually impossible to avoid a big bunch sprint to kick off the Californian race. Sacramento last hosted a stage finish in 2011 when Ben Swift won a bunch sprint while Mark Cavendish was fastest one year earlier. In 2009, Fabian Cancellara won the prologue in the city while it was the scene of bunch sprint victories for Tom Boonen and Juan Jose Haedo in 2008 and 2007 respectively.
For the second year in a row, the GC riders will be tested already on the second day of the race but unlike last year, it won't be a chance for the climbers to make a difference. Instead, the time trial will be held much earlier than usual as it already comes on the second day, giving the climbers the chance to know in advance how much time they need to take back in the race's two summit finishes.
Furthermore, this year's time trial is shorter than ever as the riders will only tackle a 20.1km out-and-back course in Folsom. It is slightly uphill in the first part and then flattens out before it descends back into Folsom. Being made up of long, straight, flat roads, this is one for the pure specialists and the climbers wil struggle to keep up with the big engines on a day that should suit the likes of Taylor Phinney and Bradley Wiggins perfectly.
The climbers will get an immediate chance to take back some of the time lost in the time trial as the third stage will offer a return to the Mount Diablo climb where Leopold König won last year's queen stage. Compared to last year, the 174.5km stage from San Jose to the top of the feared climb has been made a lot harder as it is both longer and includes a lot more climbing.
Already right from the beginning, the riders go up the big Mount Hamilton (17.3km, 5%) that bring the up to more than 1200m of altitude. It is a typical California climb as it is a long, gradual affair that is not very steep. Then it's a short descent and several kilometres of rolling terrain before another descent and a flat stretch leads them to the bottom of the final climb. At 16.4km with an average gradient of 6%, it is another very Californian climb. The first part is pretty easy and all the difference will be made in the final kilometres that are a bit steeper. Last year's stage, however, proved that it is not a day to make massive time differences, with König taking the win 7 seconds ahead of Janier Acevedo while Tejay van Garderen and Michael Rogers following 5 seconds further adrift, and no less than 14 riders finished within a minute of the stage winner.
The sprinters have had an unusually tough start to the race but they should get back into the spotlight on the fourth day that takes the riders over 165.1km from Monterey to Cambria. The race usually has a stage that brings the peloton down the scenic and famous Highway 1 and this year it comes on day four. The riders will follow the rolling coastal road for the entire stage and will go up three smaller categorized climbs along the way. Those should do little to dampen the spirit of the sprinters though and as there are more than 40 flat kilometres from the top of the final one, it is hard to imagine that the stage won't be decided in a sprint. However, the wind looms as an obvious danger and as last year's race proved, crosswinds can play a role in the Tour of California.
The fifth stage sees the riders return to Santa Barbara in what should be a very tricky 172.9km affair from Pismo Beach to the finishing city. The stage is almost entirely flat and only the wind will be a potential obstacle in the first part of the race. In the finale, however, the riders will go up the San Marcos Pass which should prove to be too much for most of the sprinters and serve as the perfect launch pad for attacks. From the top, 26.6km remain, and they first consist of a fast descent and then a flat stretch to the finish.
We may see the GC riders test each other a bit but with the long, final stretch to the finish, the stage is unlikely to make a difference. However, a late move certainly has a chance of staying away. If Cannondale can keep it together though, the stage has Peter Sagan written all over it and he would love to get the win in Santa Barbara that eluded him 12 months ago when Tyler Farrar beat him in a bunch sprint.
On the sixth day, it is time to find out who's going to win this year's Tour of California as the riders tackle the 151.8km from Santa Clarita to a brand-new mountaintop finish on Mountain High. There are virtually no flat sections in this stage that has a lumpy beginning where the riders tackle several smaller climbs of which two are categorized.
An easier section leads to the bottom of the warm-up climb of Mount Emma that precedes a descent and a flat run-in to the bottom of the final climb. At 18.3km, it is a very long affair but like most other Californian climbs, it is not very steep, with the average gradient being just 5%. However, the final part of the climb is a lot harder than the Mount Diablo and we should see bigger time gaps open up than we saw on day three. It is the final chance for the climbers to take back time on the time trialists and we can expect an all.out battle for the overall win in California.
At this point, the GC should have been decided but the penultimate stage from Santa Clarita to Pasadena certainly shouldn't be underestimated. The short 142.8km stage contains a massive amount of climbing and the first 60km of the stage are virtually all uphill until the riders reach the top of the Angeles Forest climb. Then it's a short descent before the riders take on the final 4.3km climb to the Angeles Crest which has an average gradient of 4%. From the top, more than 50km remain and they first consist of a long descent before the race ends with 3 laps of a 5km finishing circuit in Pasadena
The climbing should rule out many of the fast finishers but with 50 easy kilometres at the end, it should be a sprint finish if not a strong break makes it to the finish. Fast riders like Peter Saga, John Degenkolb and Matthew Goss who all climb really well, will have marked this one out as a great opportunity. Pasadena hosted stage finishes in both 2008 and 2009 and history proves that escapees prevail in the city, with Rinaldo Nocentini and George Hincapie both taking sprint wins from small breakaways.
The Tour of California usually ends with a stage for the pure sprinters but the 2014 edition may break that tradition. The final stage is a short 122.4km one starting and finishing in Thousand Oaks. The stage mainly consists of three laps of a big circuit that includes the 4.2km Rock Store climb whose 7% gradient should do some damage, and ends with three laps on a short, flat finishing circuit in the city centre. The top of the climb comes with a little more than 30km to go and it is certainly tough enough to rule out a number of the fast finishers. It will be hard to avoid some kind of sprint finish though and again riders like Peter Sagan and John Degenkolb lick their lips, hoping that they will end their race in the best possible way.
Olaf Pollack won a sprint in Thousand Oaks back in 2006 while Ryder Hesjedal took a breakaway win in 2010. In 2011, the race also finished in the city, with Matthew Goss edging out Sagan in a bunch sprint.
Last year's race was plagued by some extreme heat, with the stage to Greater Palm Springs being a simply brutal affair held in the Californian desert. This year it should be a more pleasant affair but there will still be plenty of sunshine.
The race will start on a windy day in Sacramento where the riders can expect beautiful sunshine and 27-degree temperatures. It should be warmer for the time trial as the temperature is expected to reach 30 degrees and there will be less wind.
The upwards trajectory continues as the riders can expect a 31-degree temperature at the bottom of Mount Diablo on Tuesday and it will be even hotter on Wednesday where it could reach as much as 33 degrees. There will only be a light wind and so there is no big chance that things will split in the potentially windy stage.
It should be colder for Thursday's stage to Santa Barbara as we should be down to just 27 degrees at the finish while we should be back into the heat in the queen stage where a 33-degree temperature is expected at the bottom of the final climb. The race will end in the hot southern part of the country and it is no surprise to see that 35-degree temperatures are expected for the final two stages.
As usual, the Tour of California presents a very diverse route that includes both summit finish and a time trial and so rewards the versatile stage race rider that masters all cycling disciplines. Being some kind of mini grand tour, the race is usually dominated by the riders that shine in weeklong stage races on the WorldTour.
The climbs in California, however, are usually long and gradual but not very steep, and this makes it harder for the climbers to make a real difference. Hence, the time trial has traditionally been the single most decisive stage and it is very hard to win the Tour of California if you are not one of the best in the race against the clock.
This year's course again seems to favour the time trialists - maybe even more than it has done of the past few years. The length of the time trial may have been shortened and it is now shorter than ever before but the climbing doesn't seem to be too tough. In 2011 and 2012, the riders went up the very steep Mount Baldy that could do some big damage and in 2013, the short but very steep climb to Greater Palm Springs created some huge time differences. This year there are two big summit finishes but none of them are too steep. Last year's race proved that Mount Diablo can only create a selection near the very end and even though Mountain High is significantly harder, the main action will again be reserved to the final steep part.
This means that it is very hard to look beyond Bradley Wiggins as the man to beat in this year's race. The 2012 Tour de France champion may not have won a stage race that included major climbing since he took that memorable victory in La Grande Boucle but several things indicate that he is getting close to his best level. He had a mentally challenging 2013 season but towards the end of the season, he found his motivation again and ended the season on a high when he put in a dedicated effort to take second at the World Championships time trial.
He had given indications that his time as a stage race rider was over but apparently he has changed his mind. He may no longer go for glory in the grand tours but he still has his sights set on weeklong stage races. After a very successful classics campaign that saw him silence his critics by finishing in the top 10 in Paris-Roubaix, he has now switched to stage racing mode and he has two big goals in this second part of the season.
One of them is a spot on the Tour de France roster as he hopes to be part of the team that will try to help Chris Froome defend his title in the world's biggest bike race. The second is to win the Tour of California. Wiggins has always been motivated by setting himself new targets and spread out the wins on his palmares and this year he wants America's biggest bike race to feature prominently on his list of victories. Sky have new sponsorship interests in the USA and this has played a big role in the team having one of their main rider focus massively on the American race.
Among the GC contenders, only Rohan Dennis has a slight chance of matching Wiggins in the team time trial but it would be a surprise if stage 2 doesn't end up as a duel between Wiggins, Taylor Phinney and Jesse Sergent. Wiggins is likely to take a lot of time on his rivals in that stage and then it will be all about defending himself in the mountains. The long, gradual climbs where it is more about pacing than accelerating suit him down to the ground and he probably couldn't have designed the mountain stages better himself.
In the early part of the season, Wiggins didn't exactly excel on the climbs but after ending his classics campaign and switching to stage racing mode, he has quickly found his climbing legs. He used the very mountainous Giro del Trentino to get back into the rhythm and he did really well. In the big mountain stage on the second day, he led the group of favourites for most of the climb and in the queen stage he was there until the very end, ultimately crossing the line in 11th. Over the last few weeks he will only have become sharper and in this race he both finds himself up against a weaker field and on easier climbs. With a 20.1km time trial to put time into the climbers, it is hard to imagine anyone denying Wiggins the win.
The big dark horse in the race is Janier Acevedo who took the world by storm 12 months ago when he won the stage to the steep climb in Greater Palm Springs and defended the jersey until a combination of time trialing and crosswinds dropped him down to third. He proved that his results were no fluke as he also ended 4th in the USA Pro Challenge and 3rd in the Tour of Utah and played a dominant role in all three major American races.
This year he has joined the Garmin-Sharp team and earned himself a ride on the WorldTour but he has not done much racing so far. After abandoning the Tour de San Luis due to illness, he has only had unsuccessful outings in both the Volta a Catalunya and the GP Miguel Indurain and in fact he hasn't raced for almost two months.
This raises several questions about his condition for his return to California. Garmin-Sharp have not communicated anything about the reason for his long absence and there is a big risk that he has been slowed down by health issues. If that is the case, there is a big chance that he won't be ready for this race.
On the other hand he lines up with bib number 1 for Garmin to signal his status as team leader and for the American team, the race plays a huge role. Acevedo may have meticulously prepared his assault on the win that eluded him 12 months ago and could come out with all guns blazing.
Acevedo is not a bad time trialist but he certainly doesn't excel in the discipline and he will lose a lot of time to Wiggins in Folsom. Furthermore, he would have preferred some harder climbs to make bigger gaps. On the other hand, the only thing that can really make Wiggins crack in this race is an explosive climber that can put the Brit under pressure in the mountains. Acevedo has all the skills to do so and this makes him an obvious winner candidate.
The in-form rider of the moment is Tiago Machado who only missed the Giro del Trentino podium in the final stage where he lost a bit too much in the final kilometre of the final climb and dropped to 6th. However, the NetApp leader was up there with the best Giro contenders just weeks ahead of the grand tour which proves his excellent condition.
After a few difficult years, it seems that the change of teams to NetApp-Endura has served him well and he is again looking like the rider that was marked out as a big stage racing talent. In addition to his great ride in Trentino, he finished 3rd in both the queen stage and the overall at the Criterium International.
With this kind of form, he should be one of the best in this field. Furthermore, he is a very versatile rider that can both climb and time trial. Unfortunately, his TT skills are now what they were just a few years ago but unlike many of the other rivals he will be able to limit his losses to Wiggins in Folsom. His climbing style is much like the Brit's and he may lack the acceleration to make a difference but if he can keep up his recent momentum, he should be up there with the very best.
For Laurens Ten Dam, the Tour of California is one of his two big goals. With the main sponsor of Belkin having its headquarters in the American state, the Dutch team has been forced to put a huge emphasis on the American race and 2012 winner Robert Gesink was originally set to lead the line. With the Dutchman being out on the picture due to heart surgery, Ten Dam has taken over the captaincy role and he has specifically built his condition for this race.
Ten Dam hasn't shown an awful lot of form so far and in the Tour de Romandie he was still somewhat off the pace of the best riders. Since then, however, his condition will have improved and anyone who witnessed last year's Tour knows how strongly he climbs when he is at his best. He will obviously lose a lot of time in the time trial but his climbing skills should bring him far in this race.
For the first time ever, Peter Stetina heads into a major stage race as team leader and it even happens in his home event. The young American has been given the task of defending the title for BMC and this is a great chance for him to finally prove himself as a stage race rider.
Stetina has had a slow start to his professional career but has shown flashes of his great climbing potential. In last year's Volta a Catalunya, he was up there with the very best on the climbs but when teammate Dan Martin took the overall lead, he had to sacrifice his personal ambitions. That has been a trend in his career so far as he has had very few opportunities to ride for himself. He has a major disadvantage in the time trial but if he can find back those excellent climbing legs, he should be up there with the best.
Acevedo isn't Garmin's only GC option and few will deny that the American team is the strongest in this race. Rohan Dennis will be a second option and unlike Acevedo, he will base his GC campaign on the time trial. Last year Dennis proved his great talent when he finished an exceptional 2nd in the Dauphiné time trial and he climbed well enough to finish in the top10 overall and this proves that he has the skills to excel in this race.
This year he has already finished 2nd in three short time trials, most recently in the Romandie prologue, and he seemed to be climbing really well in the Swiss stage race just a week ago. The queen stage, however, was a bit too much for him and he fell out of GC contention before putting in a disappointing time trial at the end.
That race proved that he is still not climbing good enough to be up there with the best but the easier stages in California should suit him well. He will obviously gain a lot of time on most of his rivals in the time trial and then it will be all about defending it in the mountains. As he neither time trials nor climbs at Wiggins' level, however, it will be very hard for him to win the race.
Adam Yates arrives in California fresh from his overall victory in the Tour of Turkey and he will get another chance to ride for himself in California. However, it will be much harder for the young Brit to win this race as the level of competition is significantly higher and the race includes a time trial. Yates has never excelled in the individual discipline and he will find himself with a lot of time to make up in the mountains. Furthermore, the long, gradual climbs may suit his explosiveness slightly less but he will head into the race with no pressure to perform. Having shown splendid condition in Turkey, he s an obvious outsider and if he isn't too fatigued, he could easily finish on the podium.
Trek are heading into their home race with a strong team but they have no obvious winner candidate. For the second year in a row, Matthew Busche will get the chance to lead a team in California and he is a very solid top 10 candidate. While not being a TT specialist, he has a decent time trial and his main assets are his great climbing skills.
However, Busche has also proved that he is not strong enough to beat the best in these races and last year he could only manage 6th in California and 5th in Utah. In 2012, he was 2nd in the latter race but he seems to mainly excel in the role as luxury domestique. It would be a surprise if he doesn't end in the top 10 but a win is probably beyond his reach.
The second Trek option is Haimar Zubeldia. At his best, the veteran Basque would probably be a better candidate than Busche as his many top 10 finishes in the Tour de France prove that he can be up there with the best in the biggest races. For Zubeldia, however, the Tour is the main target and this race is usually the first step in his preparation for La Grande Boucle. Last year he only finished 17th in California and nothing suggests that he is going much stronger at the moment. We would be surprised if he mixes it up with the best but due to his palmares he is a podium candidate if he is better than usual at this time of the year.
Tom Danielson would probably have been Wiggins' biggest rival if he has been at his top level but the American is just coming back from injury and suffered in the Tour de Romandie less than a week ago. This race probably comes a bit too early for last year's winner of the Tour of Utah who is usually exceptionally strong in the American races. He is not the time trialist he once was but he has a decent TT and is an excellent climber. Of course his condition will have improved since Romandie but we doubt that he is at the level to contend for the win.
Finally, Daniel Jaramillo deserves a mention. The Colombian was the big revelation in the very hard Tour of the Gila that usually serves as the warm-up race for California for the American continental teams. He won the two hardest stages but dropped to 5th on GC by virtue of the time trial. Last year Acevedo arrived at the race after having put in a great showing in Gila and this time it could be his compatriot who repeats the performance. His time trialing skills make it unrealistic for him to target the win but he could very well create a spectacle in the mountains.
***** Bradley Wiggins
**** Janier Acevedo, Tiago Machado
*** Laurens Ten Dam, Peter Stetina, Rohan Dennis
** Adam Yates, Matthews Busche, Haimar Zubeldia, Tom Danielson, Daniel Jaramillo
* Carter Jones, Johan Esteban Chaves, Daan Olivier, Lawson Craddock, Chad Haga, Gregory Brenes, Amael Moinard, Alex Howes, Carlos Verona, Joe Dombrowski, Lucas Euser, Isaac Bolivar, Matt Cooke, Kirk Carlsen, James Oram, Clement Chevrier, Matthews Lloyd
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