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Host cities of 2019 Tour of California announced

Tour of California cover
Daniel Ostanek
5 Dec 2018

Mount Baldy returns, and there’s a return to Laguna Seca Raceway too

Tour of California

Ellis Bacon

You’ve seen those Visit California TV ads, right? The ones in which bronzed locals breezily joke about how your assumptions as to what ‘The Golden State’ is like may or may not be true, but that you need to visit to find out for yourself? Well, California really is like that, and the Tour of California stage race does its level best to showcase it.

‘It’s such a beautiful and diverse part of the world,’ says US journalist Neal Rogers, a California native who’s attended the race every year since its inception. He’s also a presenter on YouTube channel Global Cycling Network (GCN), for whom he’ll cover the race in 2015. ‘In addition to great weather, California has rabid fans who come out to line the race route, often on their bikes. It’s also special because it’s a race that’s had a bit of longevity, heading into its 10th edition this year, which is a long time for a major US stage race.’

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The Tour of California began in 2006 with seven stages, before growing to its current eight-stage format in 2009. The event was held in February for its first four years, but bad weather prompted a move to May in 2010, where it has remained since. Thanks to this, it’s often used by the bigger European teams as an alternative to the Giro d’Italia as preparation for the Tour de France. A positive byproduct of the calendar change was the opportunity to include a lot more climbing, with mountains that had been out of bounds because of snow earlier in the season now up for grabs. This really put it on a par with major European week-long stage races.

‘When comparing it to European stage races, riders from Europe often comment on how everything is so much bigger in the States: the cars, the hotels, the meals, the beds and, of course, the roads,’ Rogers says. ‘Wider roads actually alter the complexion of the race dramatically – they remove the need to be skilled at positioning. This makes it easier for riders who are strong but not necessarily ‘pack smart’ to be successful. They also make it harder for a breakaway, because on a small road the stronger teams can block and let a small group go, but on a wider road it’s more chaotic – it takes longer for a group to be established but, when it does happen,
it results in a stronger breakaway.’

BMC’s Taylor Phinney points out other aspects of the race that make it so appealing: ‘It’s a state with great energy, and the race is the only one that has a little bit of history in the US. That makes it special, and it’s an event that all the Americans show up at ready to race,’ he tells Cyclist from his home in Colorado as he recovers from the horrific leg injury sustained in a crash at last May’s US National Road Race Championships. ‘For American riders, it’s a real pleasure to race on our own roads,’ he adds. ‘We spend so much time in Europe on other people’s roads. And a lot of US riders spend their winters in California, so we’re familiar with the terrain.’

Medicine men

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Almost unbelievably for a cycling race, title sponsor Amgen, which has been on board since the Tour’s inception, is a pharmaceutical company that manufactures, among other products, EPO. But it appears to have done the company and the race no harm whatsoever. 

The fact that two riders have won the race who would both later admit to doping during their careers – Floyd Landis, who took victory in the first edition, and then three in a row from California resident Levi Leipheimer – also taints the history of the event, although its list of winners was never tarnished by Lance Armstrong. The closest he came was seventh in 2009.The new generation of American riders has rejuvenated US cycling, however, and riders such as Phinney have helped maintain the enthusiasm among fans at home races. In the 2014 race, Phinney – the reigning US time-trial champion – scored a rare road stage win when he soloed home on the fifth stage from Pismo Beach to Santa Barbara, just 11 days before his season-ending crash.

‘You don’t get the same kind of rush from a time-trial that you get in a road stage, much less when you win by yourself and come in solo,’ Phinney says. ‘That’s always been my favourite way to do things, and it’s the kind of thing I daydream about – being ahead of the charging pack and winning. Having spent a fair amount of time in Santa Barbara and having friends there, it was really cool. It was like winning at a second home. It’s a win I’ll remember for the rest of my life, for sure.’ Although Phinney is now back in training, he’ll have to watch from the sidelines this year. He hopes to be back racing in time to defend his national TT title in Tennessee at the end of May.

What’s to come?

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The 2015 Tour of California is ‘a game of two halves’, and sticks to a more central area of the state, starting in Californian capital of Sacramento and remaining in the bottom half of northern California for the first three stages before a transfer to the Los Angeles area of southern California for the remaining five stages. The final stage finishes in Pasadena, just outside Los Angeles, and familiar to some as the setting for US sitcom The Big Bang Theory.

The 2015 race also welcomes a three-day women’s stage race, from 8th-10th May, as well as retaining the women’s individual TT, which has stood alone for the previous four editions, and was won in 2014 by Alison Powers. That will take place again at Big Bear Lake, which is also the site for the individual TT in the men’s race, on stage six. Should you happen to be lucky enough to be in the Golden State in May this year, this is one stage race worth experiencing live. The rest of us will have to be content to watch online or on TV, dreaming about what it would be like to be at the roadside alongside such enthusiastic fans, before, just possibly, responding to the next California tourist board advert.

Page 3 of 3Tour of California: America's alternative to the Giro d'Italia offers up big names, big roads, and big climbs

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Page 3 of 3Tour of California: America's alternative to the Giro d'Italia offers up big names, big roads, and big climbs