What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Previews: The 2008 Tour Of California

The route for the 2008 Tour of California was announced a few days ago, and the third incarnation of the ever bettering romp along the Left Coast could provide some even better racing than in years past – certainly tougher racing. PEZ takes a closer look with the help of California native and TOCA TT standout last year, Ben Jacques-Maynes.

First off, let’s take a look at the basics:

02.17 Prologue – Palo Alto ITT – 3.4 km
02.18 Stage 1 – Sausalito > Santa Rosa – 156 km
02.19 Stage 2 – Santa Rosa > Sacramento – 187.2km
02.20 Stage 3 – Modesto > San Josй – 152.2km
02.21 Stage 4 – Seaside > San Luis Obispo – 217 km
02.22 Stage 5 – Solvang > Solvang (ITT) – 24 km
02.23 Stage 6 – Santa Barbara > Santa Clarita – 175 km
02.24 Stage 7 – Santa Clarita > Pasadena – 150 km

A quick glance at the basics shows little difference from years past – in fact, only the first and final stages are significantly different in terms of venues, whilst Stage 3 has a new start town, not too far down the road from the previous start. As that awful cliche so perfectly notes, however: the Devil is in the details. And the details this year come in the form of mountains: two large, tall, never-ending mountains, but more on that in a moment – let’s start to sift through the possibilities starting at the beginning.

Prologue – Palo Alto – 3.4 km
Gone is the San Francisco Prologue with its woefully steep finishing straight up Godawful Steep Hill, or whatever they call it…and in with a nearly pancake flat, non-technical 3.4 km slam bam how much power can YOU put out for about 3 minutes and some change suffer-fest.

Last year, Priority Health’s (now the Bissell Pro Cycling Team) Ben Jacques-Maynes rode to a fantastic 3rd Place in San Francisco. I asked him today with some trepidation how he felt about the change in venue and the significant change in course type – after all, a course that nets you a 3rd Place only a few teeny seconds from the win can’t be too bad for you…

The big hill will be gone, but the crowds should be at least as big in Palo Alto.

BJM was all for the new course though:

“That prologue has my name written all over it. It’s a big power, layin it down, pursuit style type course – see how hard you can dial it up in a short amount of time.

“Plus, I used to live in Palo Alto. I worked on University Ave at Palo Alto Bicycles, which the race goes by I think in the first k.” (How cool is that?!)

Will we see a big name like Levi Leipheimer prevail again, or perhaps a surprise like the other two podium spots: Jason Donald and Ben Jacques-Maynes.

“It’s going to be really cool to see what it’s like with a bunch of spectators and no cars, because it’s a really quaint little downtown area and then you head up into Stanford University. It’s dead flat – the only terrain you have is a freeway underpass, and you dive down there. That’s really about it.

“It’s gonna be whoever gets the best warm-up and who has the best legs right then and there.”

Settle Down Boys!
After the dramatics of the Prologue in Palo Alto, the next two days are carbon copies of last year – so it shouldn’t come as any surprise if Stages 1 and 2 come down to big ol’ wild and crazy bunch sprints. Sometimes that’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but last year, the finish in Santa Rosa for Stage 1 was the epitome of wild, crazy…and contentious. With 9k to go a spectacular crash took down a good chunk of the field, including race-leader Levi Leipheimer, but not the next-in-line Ben Jacques-Maynes, who appeared poised to assume the top spot on GC. The race organizers stepped in though, much to the chagrin of BJM who bitterly notes the ‘new’ 9k rule over the former 3k (more on that debacle in a few days time, when we post our PEZ-Clusive Interview with BJM).

Hopefully, there won’t be any of that going on in 2008 – Stage 1 winner Graeme Brown and Stage 2 winner Juan Jose Haedo will most likely be returning and probably wouldn’t mind a return to the top step of the podium to start their ’08 campaigns off nicely.

Stage 1 went to Graeme Brown by a whisker over Greg Henderson.

Stage 2 came down to another bunch sprint and went to newly signed CSC recruit, JJ Haedo.

Clocking In…
Anybody with any hopes at the General Classification better show up to the office ready to do business for Stage 3. Last year’s Stage 3 was plenty hard with the climb of Sierra Road at the end of the stage, but really only moderately selective with a group of three (led home by Jens Voigt) getting a four second gap over a select chasing group of about 30. 2008 will put all thoughts of moderately selective to shame with the addition of Mt. Hamilton to precede Sierra Road.

How big is Mt. Hamilton? Well, everyone says it’s big, but I wanted to see just how big – so now you have the first look at the profile of Stage 3 of the Tour of California (well, the part that matters) – courtesy of fantastic and free, RouteSlip.com.

It’s funny to look at the 2008 Stage 3 profile, because the final climb – Sierra Road – was the BIG climb of the day in ’07, but compared to Mt. Hamilton, it looks like a little bump.

Check out the profile from ’07, I’m not making it up – that’s a BIG change!

I’ll let BJM take it from here:

“People are going to be really surprised by the ride over Mt. Hamilton on St 3 into San Jose. I’ve been telling those guys if they ride over the back side of Hamilton there’s no need to ride over Sierra, the race will be completely shattered.”

“You do 21 miles of climbing from I-5 to the first summit, and that’s only about halfway there. And then from there it’s another 20 miles to the summit of Hamilton, then you descend for 16-17 miles into San Jose.”

The Pez himself tried out Sierra Road in 2007 – ouch was the review.

“It’s a really twisty descent as well: I used to live about 20 min from the bottom of Mt. Hamilton, it would take me, going absolutely as hard as I could, about an hour to go up it and then another hour just to get down. It’s so twisty for the first ten miles, just back and forth left and right. It’s amazing how long it takes to come down that hill.”

Once you hit the top of the Sierra climb, it’s more or less downhill to the finish.

“It’s going to be really interesting to see how that race plays out. I know that the organizers, Medalist Sports, have been kind of bummed out with how Missouri and Georgia ended up this year – big break goes. I think that’s pretty standard bike racing. I think they’re setting up a recipe for that here though; I think they’re begging for it. You can have a couple of the right people go up the road – who’s going to chase them down? ”

Will a certain Mr. Leipheimer put on a climbing clinic on Stage 3?

“Who’s going to chase down Levi Leipheimer with 90k to go? It’s not going to happen. I predict that there will be no more than 10 people starting the climb up Sierra Road together, and there will be absolute carnage up and over Sierra. Then there will be no groups – just ones and twos. Well, there will be one group – a big gruppetto that will come in 20-30 minutes down.”

So there you have it – Stage 3 should very well do the stern job of whittling the group of contenders to, um, about 1.

A Non-Decisive Day Follows
After what should be a dazzling fireworks display on the slopes of Mt. Hamilton and Sierra Road, the route heads to the coast and a jaw-dropping Stage 4 heading southward along the Pacific. The pictures will be incredible, the racing…probably just a big ol bunch sprint. Last year it was World Champ Paolo Bettini taking one of the few wins of his 2007 campaign by a hair over T-Mobile’s Gerald Ciolek.

Back To Work!
Stage 5 will see the GC hopes back to attention for the Solvang TT. The route is pretty much the same as last year – a slightly different start, but the same roads in general. The riders do get a bonus 500 meters added on to last year’s 23.5 km. There will be much rejoicing.

Not too much to say about this one – it’s a tough, demanding time trial. Last year, the cream truly rose to the top for this one, expect more of the same in 2008.

The Pez followed BJM in last year’s Solvang TT, en route to a splendid 10th – first non-ProTour.

If Stages 3 and 6 haven’t shaken the rotten fruit from the tree of favorites just yet, there will still be two more chances to make sure it happens.

The Final Two Days
Stage 6 from Santa Barbara to Santa Clarita will be identical to last year’s favorite, including the painful ascent of Balcom Canyon. A former Santa Barbara resident did note however that the race continues to avoid Ortega Hill Road while leaving Santa Barbara. Apparently race organizers are worried that the world famous group ride in Santa Barbara will leave as the race goes by and put all of the pros to shame as they attack the famous hill – nobody wants to see an almost 80-year-old Doug Knox in his 53×12 dropping Paolo Bettini. I digress.

Stage 6 is a lumpy, non-flat affair, but then again, it seems like nothing in the Tour of California is flat.

Stage 6 will be a stage for the strong agressive types – which was shown to perfection last year. Only a serious and committed chase from behind managed to keep the break at bay, but if situations change a bit in ’08 – this would definitely be a stage for the break to go the distance…or it won’t…and there will be another field sprint.

And finally, the final of final days: a parade around Long Beach right? Negative. The Tour of California hit record high elevations on Stage 3 with Mt. Hamilton, but on Stage 7, they outdo themselves again – going even higher to nearly 5000 feet courtesy of the Mill Creek Summit in the Angeles Forest at 4906 feet above sea level (considering that most of the climbs start around sea level…ouch)!

Ben takes it from here: “[Stage 7] goes up even higher. You’re climbing straight out of the blocks. It’s definitely no parade circuit race. I don’t know those roads as well, but I was actually on Google Earth last night looking at the profiles and following the roads around and seeing exactly where the roads went and reminding myself of the roads I knew, and checking out the roads that I didn’t.”

Good idea, Ben. We had a look at Stage 7 as well, and it looks anything but easy. That should feel really nice on the final day.

“It’s gonna be gnarly. There is a lot of climbing. You actually go up into the high desert a bit – if it’s clear, which it has been, it will be really cold up there, and if it’s raining, it’s going to be snowing up in the hills. I don’t think there’s going to be any type of good weather up there.”

Last year’s final day break could also be a good break in the coming edition – a high-powered, aggressive group with nothing to lose.

It’s going to take a solid 40 miles of continuous upward movement to get to the Tour of Californi’s Cima Coppi, or, er, High Water Mark – by the time the race gets there, the field shouldn’t be much of a field at all, but some kind of impression of Jackson Pollack paint throws on canvas – chaos.

After the high point, it’s more or less downhill to the finishing circuits – from which you might expect a punchy, good climber to take the day – you know, someone along the lines of a Paolo Bettini, maybe a Horner or Hincapie, or even a Jens Voigt.

The Final PEZ Thoughts
The addition of just two new climbs will give the Tour of California a well-timed improvement. Just these two climbs alone should do much in changing the face of the race, and making for a much more selective, perhaps wild, affair.

With that said, will we see any new characters atop the GC? Probably not. A rider like Levi Leipheimer if anything will be at even more of an advantage, but that’s another story for another day.

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