(AFP) – The Tour of California was once a quaint upstart race that took place in February, so early on the worldwide cycling calendar that nobody really paid it much attention.
That has changed dramatically in the past 14 years. Now, the race has carved out a crucial week in mid-May opposite the opening week of the Giro d’ Italia, the first of the three Grand Tours. And that means it has become a key prep race for riders who have designs on racing in the Tour de France when July rolls around.
Riders such as Richie Porte, who is making his Tour of California debut on Sunday as he begins the ramp up to the Tour de France, where he is expected to be one of the overall favorites.
”In the (general classification) game every day is the most important,” said Porte. ”There’s no day you can switch off. Maybe a bit of a shame for me there’s no time trial, but there’s plenty of climbing.”
Indeed, this year’s edition of the Tour of California might be the toughest in race history.
The only real sprint stage is the first, which begins in Sacramento and returns to the state capital for its finishing circuits. Otherwise, riders will face nearly 70,000 feet of climbing over seven stages, including a climb to Carson Pass, the highest point the race has reached.
The penultimate stage includes the grueling ascent of Mt. Baldy.
”It all comes down to Baldy and staying out of trouble the other days,” said George Bennett of Jumbo-Visma, who won the overall two years ago. ”It’s going to be a challenging week.”
THE CONTENDERS: Anybody with the legs to climb. That means Porte and former teammate Rohan Dennis, who is now with Bahrain-Merida, will be at the front of the peloton. EF Education First will feature Tejay van Garderen and Rigoberto Uran.
”It’s always a treat to be able to come home,” said van Garderen, who grew up in Washington and won the 2013 overall. ”Now being on a truly American team coming and racing on American soil provides a different feel and a different level of motivation.”
None of the contenders will have to deal with Egan Bernal, the defending champion. He was set to ride for Team Sky in the Giro before breaking his collarbone.
THE SPRINTERS: The few fast finishes should come down to Mark Cavendish, who is finally feeling good after a bout of mononucleosis, and Peter Sagan, who has a record 16 stage wins in the race. Then again, neither has been particularly good lately.
Cavendish had a long illness to blame for his form, but Sagan’s performance this season has been a mystery. The three-time world champion has just one victory on his resume, and he skipped the iconic one-day classic Liege-Bastogne-Liege to rest for a busy summer.
”I have to be ready for Tour de Suisse, nationals and the Tour de France,” he said. ”I’m very happy to be back here. … I hope it’s going to be a good year and I’m hoping to do something.”
THE AMERICANS: For the first time, USA Cycling has cobbled together a national team of promising young riders to race alongside 13 WorldTour teams and five Pro Continental teams.
”I’m grateful to USA Cycling for giving me the opportunity to showcase my talent here,” said 21-year-old Alex Hoehn. ”It’s not often that a young rider like me gets to line up with some of the best in the pro peloton, and this will be an experience I will remember for the rest of my life.”
THE WOMEN: The Tour of California again will feature a three-day women’s race that runs alongside the final three stages of the men’s race. It begins in Ventura and finishes in Pasadena.
”I’m really excited the race is in Ventura,” said Kendall Ryan of Team TIBCO-SVB, who grew up in California and won a stage in last year’s race. ”I know the finish line like the back of my hand. I know every pothole and crack in the road.”