What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Previews: Stage 1 Of The Tour Of California!

Stage One of the 2009 Amgen Tour of California (AToC) on February 15 is an eclectic sampler of Northern California cycling. From pan-flat farmland to rocky canyons, fields of flowers, and meandering vineyard paths that end in abrupt 20% climbs. With camera and notebook in hand, we rode the 107 miles from Davis to Santa Rosa.

Contributed by: Scott McKinney

Rather than simply reversing the route used for Stage 2 each of the two previous years (Santa Rosa to Davis), organizers used the change in direction to explore new terrain and climbs. “I love those two lane roads in the middle of nowhere,” said Chuck Hodge, Race Technical Director for Medalist Sports, the firm responsible for many of the logistics required to pull off the largest bicycle race in North America. Not only do remote roads minimize complications with traffic control, “those nasty little narrow roads are part of the flavor of the race.”

Sorry about tiny image, but the blue line shows us traveling east to west, with a lot of squiggles in between.

Determining new ways to torture pro cyclists is only part of Hodge’s job. He also oversees security, medical, officials, communications, caravan management and other behind-the-scenes details. Together with Eric Smith, Course Director, Hodge researches, maps and sets routes used by the AToC and the Tour of Missouri. He’s performed similar planning for the Tour of Georgia, the 2000 Olympic trials, and several national championships.

Naturally, fans want to see pro times on their favorite climb. “If we went with what all the local riders wanted, we would end up with a 135-mile stage every day,” said Hodge. But that approach doesn’t fly for a nine-stage race that draws riders with varied goals. Guys seeking an early win need opportunities to open time gaps while other riders use California as early-season training. “We need to find something that works for both,” said Hodge. “That’s the real challenge.”

“Every course looks good on paper,” says Hodge. So, after roughing out routes on the computer with mapping software, Hodge and Smith drive candidate roads between start and finish host cities to confirm that the route is feasible, safe and logical to staff with hundreds of volunteers and course marshals. In addition to his direct observations, Hodge captures GPS routes and elevation profiles from his Garmin GPS directly into his laptop in the passenger seat of his rental car for later review.

Riders are allowed a fairly gentle start to Stage 1.

After establishing the basic route for 2009, and after Smith acquired permits from every jurisdiction on the course, Hodge spent a long January weekend driving two or three stages each day in a series of 12-hour marathons. During this exhaustive reconnaissance, Hodge captured detailed GPS records, cleaned up errors in the highly-detailed route logs, and worked with his signage manager to determine exact placement for route arrows, KOM and sprint point signs. “We also have to come up with the correct location for the feed zone,” said Hodge. “It has to have a wide shoulder, not be on a downhill, and be at the correct point in the race. We consider the logistics required to get teams to the feed zone then on to the end of the race. You have to find the sweet spot of balancing everything.”

The course Hodge and Smith created for Stage One is delightfully varied, with enough climbing to present real opportunities.

From its Davis start, Stage One points west for 22 flat miles amid orchards and green fields and gentle hills. After the sprint in Winters, riders meander along Putah Creek into a box canyon. There, the 300 foot climb beside Monticello Dam is an appetizer for >6,000 feet elevation gain in the next 60 miles. In this area, a relatively small gap could allow a break to disappear around a bend, over a hill, or behind one of the gnarled oaks dripping with pale green moss.

At Putah Creek the fun begins.

Beyond the dam, riders mount “Cardiac,” a Category 4 KOM, and navigate miles of false flat road south of Lake Berryessa. There the route turns north along the lake shore for 13 miles of twisting rollers on buttery-smooth Knoxville-Berryessa Road, passing the site of one infamous Zodiac slaying in 1969.

Miles of false flat…

Immediately after Putah Creek Bridge, the route turns west onto Pope Canyon Road and ascends several abrupt pitches before settling into a shallow climb. This area feels wild and remote, with an uncivilized road surface to match. Riders who flat in a crack or pothole here face a long, uphill chase. This canyon, and Pope Valley above is the last opportunity to leverage team power to shut down a break before hitting the climbs ahead.

The route through Pope Canyon is spectacular.

At the base of Howell Mountain Road, the smell of burned brakes drifts around the Pope Valley Garage – an olfactory warning of steep roads to come. This KOM rises 1,164 feet in 2.3 miles, averaging a sniff over 10 percent. But don’t let the average fool you, in the first quarter of the climb, the easiest line through corners presents pitches of 15, 17, 19 and even 20 percent.

The start of the fun up Howell Mountain.

There’s no scientific method for establishing the point value for climbs. “At the bottom we thought it was definitely a Category 2 climb,” said Hodge. “Then it leveled off a little so it seems more like a 3.” Hodge assessed this climb in context of other KOMs throughout the week or racing and solicited input from team managers who scouted the course. Even they were split on the value. The 15-minute long climb was eventually set at a respectable Category 2.

It ain’t easy.

Howell Mountain marks an abrupt change from wide-open Pope Valley to gulches and slopes filled with moss-covered oaks and dense thickets of digger pine, redwoods, manzanita and madrone. Here, sight lines are limited to hundreds of feet, reducing time available to see approaching riders to a few seconds. The KOM line appears with little warning at the intersection with White Cottage Road.

Descent time!

The KOM is no place to relax, as Howell Mountain’s true crest lies in an unremarkable cut through the hilltop .3 miles further up the road. From the top, 15 minutes of downhill love is tempered briefly by a small rise to clear Angwin’s serene crater. On the way down, it’s best to focus on the hairpin corners rather than the panorama spread below. A sketchy right turn after the final straight begins 10 miles of gentle rollers on the Silverado Trail.

The gorgeous Silverado Trail.

This stretch of the Silverado Trail is Napa Valley riding at its best. Opportunities abound for quintessential helicopter shots of the peloton charging past hilltop wineries with a backdrop of emerald fields bursting bright with yellow mustard. Shangri-la ends with a sprint to the only stop light in downtown Calistoga. Located amid a gold mine of low-altitude riding, Calistoga is an excellent place to linger (should be lucky enough to have spare time), punish numerous climbs then recharge in excellent restaurants, wineries, and mineral baths.

Everyone’s favorite color.

After eight miles of downhill and 10 miles of flat, riders face the reality of a 2.1 mile Cat. 4 KOM on Petrified Forest Road. Three quarters of the way up this climb is the premium spot to enjoy the view and watch attacks on the hill below. The KOM is but the first climb in a saw-tooth series of climbs and dips that can really hurt at the end of a long day. The fun ends in a corkscrew drop to the outskirts of Santa Rosa.

Climbing the Petrified Forest Rd.

Nice views from the Petrified Forest KOM!

The final act plays in 3.5 circuits through downtown Santa Rosa that demand criterium skills and a knack for avoiding Bott’s dots (raised road markers). Fans lining the parking garage just beyond the finish line create a virtual stadium – a tunnel of deafening cowbells, screaming humanity, and loud rock music echoing off concrete buildings.

How will it end? “If I knew what was going to happen, I’d be making a lot more than I am,” said Hodge. According to Hodge, and observations gathered while scouting the course, a break will likely get away after Winters and use the twisted terrain to stay away through Howell Mountain. This climb could spring a secondary break that could work together through the Napa Valley and pad a lead between Calistoga and Santa Rosa. Petrified Forest Road could shell some riders. But 15 miles of downhill and flat finishing circuits are enough for strong teams to shut down the break and set up a sprint out from a broken field.

~ Keep it dialed to PEZ as we go roadside for all the action from ToC! ~

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