California 2010: PEZ Takes A Closer Look

Let’s say you run a nice little bike race in that draws world champions and millions of fans. Conventional wisdom says, “don’t change a thing.” But Andrew Messick, president of AEG Sports, doesn’t approach the Amgen Tour of California from a conventional point of view – and that’s worked just fine so far.

-Contributed by Scott McKinney-

Moving the Amgen Tour of California (AToC) from its spot in the early season to May 16 – 23, 2010, where it competes directly with the Giro d’ Italia, isn’t a change you make lightly. “It was a big decision for us,” said Messick.

There are a lot of factors that caused the move. For starters the first stages of 2009 (and 2008 for that matter) resembled a swim meet (trust me, PEZ knows first hand). And, spring opens opportunities to route stages through Tahoe and the high Sierras. And, come May, you can expect masses of wildflowers, blue skies, and strawberry fields (forever). And, we haven’t even talked about the potential additions to PEZ’ library of Daily Distractions. “To Showcase California we needed to be in the spring,” said Messick.

That’s IF Mother Nature plays along. Northern California natives know that weather in May can vary from dandy to deadly with temperatures soaring above 100 Fahrenheit, or demon winds from the north, or the occasional storm. Despite the date change, however, organizers have not yet included regions such as Lake Tahoe, Mammoth Lakes, or high passes in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Perhaps 2011 or 2012 will enable host cities to submit bids and feature these areas.

So, if there’s a Grand Tour going down at the same time at the AToC, who’s going to bother to show up? “We’re optimistic that we will continue to attract many of the world’s elite teams and athletes,” said Messick.

To prime the pump, California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger “Tweeted” out a challenge in a made-for-Twitter moment: “@lancearmstrong will you join us?” Once PEZ overcame the shock of the Terminator Tweeting, we saw Lance commit, then ask @levileipheimer if he’s in (I’ll be “defending my title”), who then tossed it to @ghincapie and @dzabriskie. If you play along with the game of Twitter Go Fish, you can actually dig out all the stages from these Tweets. Lucky for you, PEZ readers, we simplified it.

An eight-stage race in May will be different from the event you’ve known. February is an early season test. “Being in May race gives riders the opportunity to be sharper and fitter with better competition,” said Messick. Notably the 2010 edition will be eight stages with no prologue. This decision was based on input from teams who felt that nine-days of racing were too long.

From Messick’s perspective, an eight-stage race in May could suit riders who are laying down training blocks for that other Grand Tour in July. “We spent a lot of time talking to American cyclists about the route,” said Messick. “We wanted to be a race where cyclists that are preparing for the Tour can get a strong and solid training base, but also provide a couple of stages as a real fitness test. Eight hard, but not impossible, days will help them be at their peak in Rotterdam.”

Specific route are still conceptual. Stages may or may not end in circuits. Finish lines, signature climbs, major roads, and even distances are subject to change. What is known are names of cities hosting stage starts and finishes. As for what comes between, go fish.

Stage 1: Sunday, May 16 – Nevada City to Sacramento (Road Race)
While Sacramento is the “host,” the stage begins in the once booming, now-tourist-oriented, gold-rush town of Nevada City – the namesake for the Nevada City Bicycle Classic (coincidentally, won by Lance Armstrong in 2009). The selection recognizes the history and impact of this race on American cycling.

From its start in the foothills at about 2,500 feet elevation, the route trends downhill, carving through gold country on roads once used by Argonauts traveling to and from the mines. After hitting the valley floor, the route must traverse 20 to 40 miles of rollers and flat land (depending on route) to reach the sprint finish at the California State Capital. Let’s add that up: Excited Peloton + downhill start + flat middle + sprint finish. Yep, this could be the fastest stage in AToC history. Tyler? Thor? Mark?

Stage 2: Monday, May 17 – Davis to Santa Rosa (Road Stage)
Scenic. Great roads. Passionate riders. “When you tick all the boxes, what you find is that Santa Rosa is a very special place,” said Messick. “I rode the Gran Fondo. It was a tremendous celebration of our sport. The support that was put into that event made us believe that the commitment (to return to Santa Rosa) was exactly right.”

Levi’s Gran Fondo took in some incredible roads, climbs, and vistas.

As for the stage itself, “Our inclination is to make it a little bit bumpier and a little bit shorter (than last year),” said Messick. After a flat rollout through the farm land west of Davis, the route will likely use Highway 128 and start climbing at Monticello Dam. Whether organizers use the Cat. 2 climb of Howell Mt., or opt for the more direct route, riders will face a Cat 4 climb followed by low-elevation rollers on their way to the Napa Valley. There, the course could take on any number of climbs to get into the cycling Mecca of Sonoma County – home field for reigning AToC champion, Levi Leipheimer.

This lumpy terrain is a stellar opportunity for an opportunist to mount a sneak attack, stick the break, and capture yellow, as proven by Francisco Mancebo’s (Rock Racing) win on a cold, soggy day in 2009. Don’t expect major time gaps: the hills aren’t that big. In fact, Mancebo’s strategy probably wouldn’t work out on dry roads. Nevertheless, whether headed up hill or down, terrain in this region can reward brave riders who bring a large set of, uhh, aspirations.

The Tour of California will return to San Francisco in 2010 – hopefully it doesn’t look like this again!

Stage 3: Tuesday, May 18 – San Francisco to Santa Cruz (Road Stage)
Time for contenders to get serious. Beginning at the Embarcadero (near Pier 32), the neutral rollout follows the route of the Bay to Breakers run through San Francisco before turning south along the Pacific coast (much like Stage 2 from 2009). The route may add a third climb to the two climbs used in last year’s coastal stage.

In 2009, the route climbed Tunitas Creek passing Alice’s Restaurant (where “you can get anything you want”) high atop Skyline Blvd. From there it dropped back to the coast where it took another southbound tack along the coastal cliffs. Just south of Davenport, the route turned inland for the decisive climb of Bonny Doon. Shortly before riders reached the Bonny Doon KOM in 2009, the sky opened, dumping buckets of rain and hail on fans and riders alike. The torrent cleaned the roads of yellow-chalked messages of hope, encouragement for favorite riders, and larger-than-life cartoons of various appendages.

Levi celebrates his return to Yellow in 2009.

Moments later, Levi Leipheimer and Thomas Peterson (Garmin-Slipstream) came thundering around the corner and into the lead. Assuming the Bonny Doon climb remains, its location near the end of the stage, and the subsequent, hairball descent to the finish in downtown Santa Cruz make this stage one to watch. Expect the peloton to blow itself to bits on these big hills and trickle into the finish in small groups over about 20 minutes.

Stage 4: Wednesday, May 19 – San Jose to Modesto (Road Stage)
“The climb of Sierra Road is something of an icon,” said Messick. Too bad it comes in the first 15 miles of the stage. That’s an open invitation for a handful of guys to get free and win a few KOM points. From there on it’s Break vs. Peloton with the last third of the stage favoring the bunch. If you cheer for the underdog, note that prevailing westerly winds will prolong the catch on the pan-flat drag race to the finish.

Sierra Road will feature in 2010’s route, but early on in the stage.

Modesto’s finish in 2009 was a flat, multi-corner circuit that twisted around downtown. It was also shortened due to rain. Course hazards are minimal, but as Levi found in 2009, losing focus for a second and touching wheels can be just as dangerous as the errant Bott’s Dot or painted arrow. The only way this doesn’t end in a sprint is if every sprinter flats on the way to town.

Stage 5: Thursday, May 20 – Visalia to Bakersfield (Road Stage)
This route is somewhat of a mystery. While it’s billed as the stage that tickles the Sierras and Sequoia National Forest, such a route could push this stage over 130 miles – not likely on the eve of Stage 6.

Pez enjoyed a long day on the roads to Clovis early last year – he can attest to the rolling nature of the course.

Most probable is a relatively low-elevation jaunt through rolling foothills– similar to the end of the Clovis stage in 2009 but with wild flowers. The stage is likely to end with a 200 foot stinger of Panorama Bluffs and circuits at fan-friendly Bakersfield College.

Stage 6: Friday, May 21 – Pasadena to Big Bear Lake (Road Stage)
The Queen stage presents the first mountain finish in AToC history. It’s a diabolical challenge: up to 14,000 feet of elevation gain over two massive mountains in about 120 miles (depending on final route). While this route is sure to present incredible views for TV, riders who want to win on this day will see only pain.

The route is not set. Landslides have indefinitely closed some roads that organizers want to use. Based on information from the press conference and input from locals who train in the area, the route is likely to leave Pasadena via either Angeles Crest Highway (SR 2) or the steeper, San Gabriel Canyon Rd. (SR 39). The second option, a local favorite, looks like someone threw cooked spaghetti against a wall. Unfortunately, this road has been closed for many years so its usability is questionable. Either way the route tops out at about 7,900 feet. From the top, the highway plunges down to connect with Highway 138. Portions of this descent are on newly-paved surface, a wide-open sled run that will easily see speeds of 60 MPH.

We thought Sierra Road was bad…

At Interstate 15 (formerly Route 66) the fun starts all over again. Again there are several route options – each with its own unique impact on the race.

Should the race continue on Highway 138, it will take a steady and long climb to Big Bear. After Silverwood Lake, a series of switchbacks leads to the junction with Highway 18 (Rim of the World Highway). From there, the road becomes a series of rollers and false flats that eventually top out at Lakeview Point (7,112 feet) before finishing at Big Bear Lake. This option favors a larger finishing group.

But there are options for the second climb that could be oh so much more challenging. One option is to route the course to the bottom of Highway 18 or perhaps Highway 330. These climbs both start at a lower elevation and reach the top over a shorter distance, lending themselves to a solo break or small, select group of finishers. (Note: high traffic on these roads makes them less than conducive to riding for weekend warriors and scouting trips.)

Regardless of which roads make the cut, all this climbing spells time gaps – massive, gaping, holes in general classification that are large enough to drive a sprinter through.

Stage 7: Saturday, May 22 – Los Angeles (Individual Time Trial)
The Tour will enter downtown Los Angeles for the first time; starting and finishing near The Staples Center. Downtown LA isn’t like other bustling downtown areas. On weekends, offices and roads are abandoned, leaving empty boulevards that beg to be ridden by cyclists. This ITT could cover enough distance to take in some interesting terrain even if the course is a two-lap affair. For example, Griffith Park, or the 32% Fargo Street wall, and other challenges are well within range.

If you think time trial in California, you can’t help but think Levi Leipheimer as well. He owns the discipline at home.

Conveniently, in addition to the Tour of California, AEG also owns the Staples Center which is just around the corner from AEG’s Corporate Headquarters. These facilities and associated infrastructure make this a convenient place to stage this traveling show and accommodate hoards of fans for a free, weekend event.

Stage 8: Sunday, May 23 – Thousand Oaks/Westlake Village/Agoura Hills (Road Stage)
Any time you mount a bicycle in the vicinity of Malibu, you can expect bunches and bunches of climbs up any number of rugged canyons. These climbs might seem like mole hills compared with the HC behemoths of Stage 6, but they are steep and incessant.

Mulholland Highway is a possibility for May.

Again, route details are sketchy, but “Mulholland Highway” and “Rock Store” are under consideration. “Bringing the route onto roads that are used by recreational cyclists is important to us,” said Messick. It’s also important to bring the Tour past Amgen’s headquarters in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

The Rock Store Loop is a true southern California classic. 4000+ feet of climbing in 34 miles – if they use any part of this route, you know it’s going to be challenging.

After the monstrous Stage 6 and ITT over the previous two days, expect a small group of punchers to get a lead and hold off the group on what will probably be an abbreviated road course followed by a tough little circuit.

What’s missing in 2010? “This is the hardest part of the job,” said Messick. Routing and logistics this year means that San Louis Obispo, Solvang, San Diego County, and Marin County won’t be in the route. “We will be back in Solvang. We will be back in San Diego County. Soon.” That’s the beauty, and potential of the AToC. So many places to ride, so little time.

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