Thursday, December 4, 2008

Longer, higher and stronger for 2009 Tour of California

While the general layout of the of the fourth edition of the Tour of California has been known for some time, the specific routes were announced early Thursday morning, with the most significant changes from the original announcement already reported confirmed by the organizers, AEG. Those changes include a prologue time trial in Sacramento on Saturday, February 14 and the reduction of the women's racing from a proposed three-day NRC stage race of three criteriums to a single criterium.

"We have a much more even race than in the past," the race technical director Chuck Hodge told us. "In other words, a lot of these days are all going to be decisive. Certainly the time trial is always going to be decisive. It's the same course as before. But the biggest change will not having a parade stage in the finale."

The finish is certainly not a parade like the first two years. Last year the stage also had a finale that featured a climb, but Hodge explained that this will be much more significant. "That climb into Pasadena isn't really that hard; it's a long gradual 20 mile climb. Palomar is a real climb. I'm not sure how we are going to rate it but it will be at least a category 1 or an HC! It's close to a Mt. Hamilton – the descent is not as technical but it is long and fast, and there is still another climb after it before the finish.

While fans and racers have asked for a summit finish in recent year, finding one that works with all of the hundreds of other logistical and political considerations has been a challenge. Hodge said this stage should satisfy a lot of people's thirst for exciting racing. "It's hard to find a summit finish but we came up with this stage and it will be exciting while also getting down to San Diego."

The first three years of this race all began with a prologue, with the first two featuring a short but challenging climb up to Coit Tower in San Francisco. That will not be the case in Sacramento where the course profile for the 3.9 km prologue shows an elevation gain measured in feet.

The first stage is a new one, starting in the city of Davis for the first time and heading west towards Santa Rosa, which has hosted the first stage's finish every year. Whereas before the route began on the seaside in Sausalito and immediately turned upwards through Marin County, the first stage will have a more gradual start to the climbing with 35 km of flat to rolling roads before the first King of the Mountain (KOM) of the race up to the Monticello Dam. The stage finish in Santa Rosa is well-known, both because it is the hometown of two-time race winner Levi Leipheimer, and with the finish circuit as site of the 'Levi rule' controversy in 2007.

Stage two will begin where stage one used to depart, but going in the opposite direction for what will likely be the poster photograph of the race. Organizers are running the race over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge over the San Francisco Bay and into the city – though it will be part of the usual neutral section before the actual racing. This will also be the 'coastal' stage of the tour along Highway 1, replacing the now infamous stage from Monterey to San Luis Obispo. The 186 km course has two climbs on Tunitas Creek Road and Bonny Doon Road, with the second coming very close to the stage finish, resulting in a fast descent into the finish similar to the finishes in San Jose.

Fans of those San Jose finishes will not be left out, as their city will turn around and become a start city, with the route going up the much-loved Sierra Road climb in the first 15 km of the 187.7 km stage as it winds its way to where last year's third stage began in Modesto. Though a different route than last year, the course profile is almost a mirror opposite, with the last 70 km pancake flat. Field sprint, anyone?

Stage four brings a lot of new into the tour – two new host cities in Merced and Clovis, and a new mountain range with the Sierras. Four KOM climbs and two sprints in between will make this an important day for those classifications, with the GC leader needing to be on his game to not lose the race before the time trial.

Though stage five is the longest stage (216.1 km) it is 80 km of relatively flat racing. But if the winds pick up on the open terrain, it will feel like climbing. The finish of the stage will feature rolling hills and two sprints, winding up for a likely field sprint while the GC contenders all spin their legs in preparation for the following day's time trial.

The time trial of the tour is once again in Solvang with the now well-known out-and-back course through the Santa Ynez Valley. Though short by many standards at just 24 km, the steep climb up Ballard Canyon combined with a technical descent separate the times.

In 2008, the final stage from Santa Clarita to Pasadena was an exciting and dramatic stage, with foul weather in the Angeles National Forest making an already long and difficult 15 mile descent into the outskirts of Los Angeles even more challenging. The climb to Mill Creek Summit could be a battle site if the GC or KOM competition are still close; and the finishing circuits around the Rose Bowl were high drama last year with George Hincapie winning out of a breakaway chased by the peloton.

Completing the "new" for this fourth Tour of California will be the final stage, going farther south than any before from Rancho Bernardo to Escondido. With four climbs over 155.8 km, including the high point of the race Palomar Mountain (5,123 feet), the race could still be up in the air, unlike in the three previous editions. The Palomar Mountain climbs is 11.7 miles with a seven percent average grade and 4,200 feet of climbing over 21 switchbacks at almost the half-way point of the stage. As well, the finale will be a single run-in and not a finish circuit, making it a true finish.

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