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One rider has marked this race out as an important objective right from the beginning of the season. Tejay Van Garderen keeps the tradition among the best American stage racers of seriously targeting their biggest home race.

Photo: Sirotti

CAMERON MEYER

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DAVID ZABRISKIE

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FRANCISCO MANCEBO

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LIEUWE WESTRA

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MATTHEW BUSCHE

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MICHAEL ROGERS

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TEJAY VAN GARDEREN

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THOMAS DE GENDT

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TOUR OF CALIFORNIA

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11.05.2013 @ 12:13 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 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 classics contenders 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 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 local 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.

 

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 7 of the 9 podium spots being taken by American riders in the years 2010, 2011 and 2012. However, the new calendar date has stopped the Leipheimer dominance and the veteran has only ended 3rd, 2nd and 6th (in an impressive comeback from an injury) in recent editions.

 

Last year Robert Gesink gave a hope of a more international future of the race as the Dutch rider gave a first indication of his form with a solid time trial before he went on to crush the competition in the queen stage to Mount Baldy. Battling hard in Italy these days (and surprisingly has avoided the crashes of the opening stages) he is not back to defend his title but other international riders line up to challenge the best Americans. Furthermore, the race boasts an impressive list of classics contenders in its line-up with the likes of Peter Sagan, Thor Hushovd, Philippe Gilbert and Sylvain Chavanel all ready to get going again after their spring campaign. Last year's race turned into a Sagan show as the young Slovakian only failed to win the time trial and the two mountain stages (he even finished second in one of them) and once again the route seems to be tailor-made to the Cannondale rider who could very well be the dominant figure again this year.

 

The course

Right from the inaugural edition in 2006, the race has 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.

 

This year the lay-out of the race has been completely changed. Not only will the direction be reversed in a route from South to North, the race has also invented a number of new routes and a brand-new mountain top finish as the pinnacle stage of the race. For most of the riders it will be a completely new experience to race in California as the race is completely different from its previous editions. Nonetheless, the route remains highly diverse and it still has the format of a real stage race which will be won by an all-rounder who can both climb and time trial.

 

The race heads straight into the mountains on the first day as riders will tackle a 165,2km loop around the city of Escondido. After a flat start the peloton will start to climb gradually in some rolling terrain and hit a provisional peak at the top of the Mesa Grande climb after 61,3km of racing. At that point the roads levels out somewhat and the riders even get some rest on a small descent before they hit the bottom of the day's major challenge, the Mount Palomar. The riders will have to climb up to almost 1700m above sea level before they reach the summit at the 97,3km mark. From then on it is a long descent before a mostly flat run-in to the finish in Escondido. However, the short Cole Grande climb will be a real leg-breaker but from its top 36,2km of flat roads remain and the day's ascents will all be located way too early to make it a day for the GC riders. On the other hand it is also not one for the pure sprinters and the stage could either be one for a successful breakaway or the first day in what could very well end up in another Peter Sagan show.

 

If the first day of racing was not suitable to make a real selection between the GC riders, this is certainly not the case for Monday's second stage. Starting in Murrieta the 199,7km heads in a easterly direction into the mountains. The first 75km are mostly flat but then the riders hit the bottom of the second big mountain of this year's Tour of California. The 1400m Mountain Center climb will be located too early in the stage to make any real difference but it will surely hurt the riders legs ahead of a tough finale. Having covered some flat kilometres at the top of the ascent the riders head down via a long descent before flat roads lead all the way to the bottom of the day's final challenged. The brand-new 5,8km Tram Way climb averages more than 9% and as the finish line is located at its summit it will give us the first clue as to who will be able to win this year's Tour of California.

 

Peter Sagan will like the nature of the race's third stage. The 177,5km stage zig-zags through the hills between the start city of Palmdale and the finishing city of Santa Clarita and it is up and down between 400m and 1100m of altitude most of the day. Four categorized climbs are on the menu but the final one, the Bouquet Canyon Road, is more of a short , sharp ascent at the end of a long gradual incline and could be one for the sprinters to survive. From the top a 35,1km gradual descent takes the riders all the way down to the finish line in Santa Clarita and while the day's challenges may be felt in the riders legs, this could very well be a perfect opportunity for the race's sprinters.

 

If the sprinters may have a little doubt as to whether they can survive the climbs of the third stage, they will have a clear mind when they start the fourth day of racing. The short 134,6km route travels from yesterday's finish in Santa Clarita to the coast before it heads along the waterfront to the city of Santa Barbara. Two small categorized climbs will be on the menu and the only thing that can prevent a big bunch sprint at the end of the day is some strong wind breaking up the field as it heads to the finish.

 

The sprinters had a tough start to the race but they had any reason to fight through the opening days of racing as the fifth stage provides then with their third opportunity in a row. The 185,7km stage from Santa Barbara to Avila Beach starts with the steep San Marco pass which will get the riders' legs going but after a short descent, the roads are completely flat all the way to the finish line on the coast in Avila Beach. Expect to battle it out while the GC riders prepare for the two crucial stages of the race.

 

The first of those is the race's time trial which at 31,6km is certainly one to open up huge gaps between the overall contenders. The riders have to tackle a small climb right after the start but then it is time for the specialists to get their big gears going as they power along on flat roads towards the finish in San Jose. However, they have to save plenty of energy for the final 3km as the race against the clock has a very tough end. The 3km Metcalf Road climb has several pitches of more than 10% and the finish line will be located right at the top of the climb. In an interesting mix between a time trial for the specialists and an uphill time trial, the stage could maybe produce a few surprises as the riders wonder what choice of equipment is the right one.

 

What the climbers lost in the time trial, they need to take back in the mountains and they get the opportunity on the race's 147,1km queen stage which features a brand-new finish at the top of the Mount Diablo climb. The start will signal the challenges to come as the riders reach the top of the Morgan Territory climb after just 15,9km of racing but from then on it is a mostly flat run all the way to the bottom of the day's final ascent. The Patterson Pass at the 83,9km mark will break the monotony but it is the mighty Mount Diablo that will be the real battle ground. The climb is a long one at almost 20km and at the top the winner of the 2013 Tour of California will emerge.

 

Before the winner will be crowned he will have to survive a very scenic 131,4km final stage from San Francisco to Santa Rosa. For the third time in history the Golden Gate Bridge will be closed for a special event as the riders cross the famous monument in the opening part of the race before they head along the beautiful Highway 1 in a northern direction. After 90,2km the bunch turns right to head to the grand finale in Santa Rosa and the completely flat stage end with two 4km laps in the finishing city. Expect a big bunch kick to make up the perfect end of the 2013 Tour of California.

 

The weather

As previously said, the need for some sunny weather was one of the key reasons for the decision to move the Tour of California from February to May, and this year the organizers seem to get everything they want. A clear sky, plenty of sunshine and almost no wind will greet the riders throughout the whole race.

 

While the sunshine will be great from a advertising perspective, the riders may be less happy to see that they will have to deal with temperatures of more than 30 degrees on the opening three days of racing. The third stage to Santa Clarita could even be raced in extreme heat as the thermometers are expected to show more than 35 degrees on Wednesday and there is little doubt that the weather will influence the outcome of the race as riders struggle to keep hydrated in the warm conditions.

 

From Wednesday it is expected to be significantly cooler with temperatures hovering around the 15 degrees mark while the final 4 days should see some pleasant racing conditions with temperatures between 20 and 25 degrees. With little wind the dangerous stages along the coast will probably not be a great spectacle but at least the tourism boards get the opportunity to show off sunny California in an optimal way.

 

The favourites

Despite the two uphill finishes climbers can lose plenty of time in a 31,6km time trial and once again it is very likely that a strong all-rounder will step onto the top step of the podium in Santa Rosa. Hence, it is no surprise to see most teams line up a number of formidable time triallists and the race shapes up to be a battle between some of the world best rider's against the clock.

 

One rider has marked this race out as an important objective right from the beginning of the season. Tejay Van Garderen (BMC) keeps the tradition among the best American stage racers of seriously targeting their biggest home race and so the Californian race appeared on his list of season goals alongside the Paris-Nice, the Tour de France and the US Pro Challenge.

 

Van Garderen is one of the world's big stage racing talents due to his immense versatility. He is one of the world's very best time triallists as evidenced by his 4th places in the first long time race against the clock in last year's Tour de France and last year's world championships and he is able to defend himself in the mountains. He has always had a tendency to go too hard on the lower slopes of the climbs and blow up towards the end but indications this year is that he is gradually learning how to gauge his effort on the ascents. In the Paris-Nice and Criterium International he finished 4th and 5th in the big mountain stages and he seems to be climbing better than ever this year. His most dangerous rivals for the win all have the time trial as their main strength and while the same is the case for Van Garderen he appears to be the most versatile of the overall contenders. This marks him out as the race's big favourite.

 

He was surprised to see himself take a 2nd place back in January's Tour de San Luis and was a solid 4th in his first big season target, the Paris-Nice. A few weeks later he stepped onto the lowest step of the podium in the Criterium International where he was only beaten by the frightening Sky duo of Chris Froome and Richie Porte. He struggled in his most recent race, the Vuelta a Pais Vasco, which was never really a target for him and since then he has carefully prepared for his California campaign in Boulder while also taking care of his first child which was born in April. He will be extremely motivated to prove himself as the next big American stage racer by winning the biggest race on home soil and his strong season start suggests that he has taken another step up and should now be capable of finally bringing home a big stage race win.

 

Michael Rogers (Saxo-Tinkoff) is a former winner of the race as he beat David Zabriskie and Levi Leipheimer in the 2010 edition of the race. That 2010 season proved to the former triple world time trial champion that he had all the capabilities to be one of the best riders in week-long stage races and he finally gave up his grand tour ambitions to focus on the shorter races. His 2011 season was hampered by illness and in 2012 he devoted himself completely to Bradley Wiggins. Nonetheless, he managed to win the Bayern Rundfahrt and even finished second in the Criterium du Dauphine behind his team leader and anyone who saw his impressive work during the Tour de France knows just how strong the Australian is.

 

His first season in the Saxo-Tinkoff team has been off to a very slow start. He was a luxury domestique for Contador in the Tirreno-Adriatico and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco but at no point he gave any indications of being in any kind of form. He managed to finish 15th in the Criterium International when Contador forfeited his participation due to illness but it was a lacklustre performance compared his 2nd and 3rd places in the 2010 and 2012 editions of the race. Since Pais Vasco he has only raced once and despite his modest 27th place in the Rund um den Finanzplatz, the race indicated that his form is on the rise.

 

He builds up for the Tour de France where he will be one of Contador's key domestique but he has said numerous times that he hopes to be able to go for a personal result in some of the shorter stage races. The Tour of California is a perfect opportunity and his versatile nature makes him an obvious candidate for the overall victory.

 

If he is back to his 2012 level, he could very well emerge as the best climber in the race and as a former triple world champion he will certainly be able to defend himself in the time trial. For a number of years he has been far away from his former strength in the discipline but last year he appeared to have rediscovered some of his former abilities. He won the race against the clock in the Bayern Rundfahrt, was third in the Dauphine, 2nd in the Criterium International and 7th in the Tour de Romandie and if he can deliver a similar performance in California he is a very strong candidate for the overall win.

 

David Zabriskie (Garmin-Sharp) is not your usual GC rider but once in a year the American time trial specialist proves that he is a much more versatile rider than most think. The Tour of California is simply "his" race and a 2nd places in 2009, 2010 and 2012 proves that he has what it takes to compete for the win in his home race. Amazingly, he best results have even been delivered in recent years where the courses has been much harder and a lot more mountainous.

 

His main strength is of course the time trial and he has won the race against the clock in the last two editions. Furthermore, he finished on the podium in the discipline in both 2009 and 2010 and he could very well end up winning once again. However, he is much more than just a time triallist and at his best he is a solid climber. It will be case of defending himself in the uphill finishes but his 11th place on Mount Baldy last year proves that he is no slouch in the mountains.

 

There is, however, one big question mark lingering over his head. He served a suspension during the off-season because of his confessions in the USADA case against Lance Armstrong and he has only raced once this season. Since his participation in the Volta a Catalunya in March, he has been building up his form and while he has never been a rider to race much, his lack of competition could be costly - especially on a route with some hard stages right at the beginning.

 

The Vacansoleil team makes its debut in the Tour of California and while the race is mostly a preparation event for the Tour de France, the strength of the team's line-up means that they will probably be a visible presence in the race. With strong support from Tomasz Marczynski and Thomas De Gendt, Lieuwe Westra appears to be the man to mix it up in the fight for the overall win.

 

The Dutchman started out as a time trial specialist but in last year's Paris-Nice he suddenly emerged as a solid climber as he won the hard uphill finish in Mende on his way to a 2nd place behind Wiggins. This year he has stepped up his came on the climbs a little further and for the first time he has been competitive in the high mountains as his performances in the Paris-Nice and the Tour de Romandie prove.

 

His Paris-Nice hopes were destroyed by a bad final time trial and his 8th place was way below his expectations. Furthermore, his 5th place in the Driedaagse van de Panne was another disappointment but after a short break he gave very positive signs in the Tour de Romandie. He managed to limit his losses in the mountains and was 4th in the time trial and he was very encouraged by his performance in a race from which he had no expectations.

 

Like most of his competitors he builds up for the Tour de France but if he has improved since Romandie he should be in the mix in California. He is one of the very best time triallists in the world and he is another that could emerge as the winner of the race against the clock. With his improved abilities as a climber he should be able to defend himself well on Mount Diablo and while he is an unlikely winner of the race, a podium sport is certainly within his reach.

 

Orica-GreenEdge very rarely enters a stage race with GC ambitions but whenever Cameron Meyer is in the line-up they make an exception. After a number of years as an attacker and time triallist, he suddenly emerged as a GC rider last year when he finished 10th in the Tirreno-Adriatico and 11th in the Tour of California. He had hoped to pose a threat in the Vuelta a Espana but fell out of contention early on and instead had a very offensive showing before abandoning after stage 15.

 

The Australian time triallist had a difficult start to the year and had to forfeit his participation in the Tour de Langkawi due to injury. He came back with a solid showing in the Circuit Cycliste Sarthe where he was 3rd in the time trial and he most recently climbed with the best in the Tour of Turkey where he ended up 6th overall.

 

Like his main rivals he strength is his time trial ability and he will probably try to limit his losses in the mountains. He has still not showed that he is able to compete with the best in the stage races and he appears to lack a little bit compared to the favourites in most of the crucial disciplines of cycling. It will be a huge surprise if he wins the race but he could take a solid top 5 result as he continues his rise towards the top of the cycling world.

 

The name of Francisco Mancebo seems to belong to the past when it comes to the biggest stage races but the Spaniard who was 4th in the 2005 Tour de France is still a formidable bike rider who has dominated the domestic American scene for the last couple of seasons. As part of the continental 5-Hour Energy team, the Tour of California is his main season objective and there is little doubt that the Spaniard lines up in peak condition.

 

He has the complete backing of his team and was most recently 3rd overall in the Tour of the Gila where he won the final stage. He is able to defend himself in the time trials but up against specialists like Zabriskie, Rogers, Van Garderen and Westra he will lose plenty of time. Furthermore, he is not the climber he once was and he will probably not be able to follow the very best on Mount Diablo. Nonetheless, his motivation and great strength as a stage race rider should put him into the mix and there is no doubt that we will see the Spaniard show his cards at some point of the American race.

 

Matthew Busche took over the role of leader as the Radioshack team when former winner Chris Horner had to forfeit his participation due to a knee injury. It is a tough task for the young American to carry the responsibility in the big home race of the team sponsor but his gradual improvement suggests that he is ready to fight for a top result.

 

Busche first showed off his talents when he was a valuable domestique in the mountains when Horner won the 2011 edition of the race and he went directly from California to South Carolina where he took home the American road race title. Since then he has showed solid improvement with a number of top 20 finishes in some big European stage races and at the end of last year he even finished 2nd and 8th in the Tour of Utah and the US Pro Challenge respectively - the two other big stage races on US soil. This year he has had a solid start to the season with a 17th place in the Tour of Oman and 23rd in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco before he did all of the Ardennes classics as a domestique.

 

His time trial abilities make it completely impossible for him to actual win the race and he has still not shown that he can follow the very best on the uphill sections. He will, however, not lack any motivation and we could see the young American right in the mix in the tough uphill finishes.

 

Finally, Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil) deserves a mention. Last year's third overall in the Giro has really only performed well in the GC in a big stage race once in his career and that was in last year's breakthrough performance in the Italian grand tour. This year he started out hugely ambitious and wanted to show off his capabilities in some of the week-long stage races but he has suffered all season and was far off the pace in the Paris-Nice, the Volta a Catalunya and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco (even though he won a stage in the Catalonian event).

 

He may have to realize that the shorter stage races are not perfect for his diesel engine as his performances in the 2011 Tour de France and the 2012 Giro d'Italia suggest that he only gets stronger and stronger as the race goes on, and it is certainly not  a bad idea for the Vacansoleil rider to focus on the Tour this year. The Tour of California is the first step in his build-up and it would be a surprise to see him mix it up at the top of the GC. Nonetheless, his time trial abilities mark him out as one of the few with the versatility to actually win the race if he is at his best.

 

***** Tejay Van Garderen

**** Michael Rogers, David Zabriskie

*** Lieuwe Westra, Cameron Meyer, Francisco Mancebo, Matthew Busche, Thomas De Gendt

** Haimar Zubeldia, Leopold König, Philip Deignan, Tomasz Marczynski, Amael Moinard, Sylvain Chavanel

* Christopher Baldwin, Matthias Frank, Chris Butler, Rohan Dennis, Javier Acevedo, Kevin De Weert, Andy Schleck, Jose Joao Pimenta, Bartosz Huzarski, Lucas Euser, Marc De Maar, Philip Gaimon

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