By Phillip Heckler
As the Amgen Tour of California reaches its halfway point, first come the hills, then the mountains and the toughest stage in race history.
Tour officials are unveiling details of the 2010 stages this week, two stages each day. On Thursday they released maps and profiles of stages 5 and 6.
Stage 5 finishes with a hilly circuit, perfect for a sprinter like Cervelo’s Thor Hushovd, defending ATOC champ Levi Leipheimer told VeloNews this week. “There is some elevation in the finish, a rise up to the line, so it could be a good sprint for someone like Thor,” Leipheimer said.
After that comes the hardest stage of the race, 130-plus miles, 12,000 feet of climbing to Big Bear Lake. But with its final summit eight or 10 miles from the finish line, a race-changing breakaway could be tough for a climber like Leipheimer. “It’s quite a ways (from the summit to the finish), and it’s a lot of flats. That definitely comes into play; you don’t have as good a chance of staying away,” he said.
Stage 5 will return to Visalia and run 195.5 km (121.5 miles) to Bakersfield. The peloton will wind its way through farmlands of the San Joaquin Valley, then to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
Leaving Visalia, the riders will head east to Exeter, then south to Lindsay, where 16 miles into the stage they’ll hit the day’s first sprint line. The second sprint will be in Porterville, then the valley roads, with their row crops and orchards, are exchanged for the foothills.
As the course takes them into Kern County, the narrow Old Stage Coach Road and Jack Ranch Road will dish out 14 percent grades – as well as KOM points – as it takes the riders to Glennville.
The peloton will then pass through the Kern River oil field, the nation’s fifth largest, and will be treated to several short, steep grades and more KOM points. At the top of the final climb, the peloton will be able to see the stage finish at Bakersfield College.
However, the climbing’s not quite over. The day finishes with two circuits in Bakersfield, including two trips up the 10 percent Panorama Bluffs, before finishing on Panorama Drive.
Stage 6 should be the toughest stage in the five-year history of the Tour of California. Racers will exchange palm trees for pine trees as they start in Pasadena and end at Big Bear Lake.
The day will start in front of City Hall, and the pack will roll out of town past the Rose Bowl, up to La Canada Flintridge.
The attack of the San Gabriel Mountains will begin the day’s climbing, serving up 3,700 feet of ascent to the Angeles Crest Highway. There will be many KOM sections on stage 6 so watch for fireworks amongst the climbers.
The highest point of the stage, and the second KOM, will come at 7,900 feet at Dawsaon Saddle on the Angeles Crest Highway. A technical and fast descent will drop the peloton roughly 2,000 feet into Wrightwood on Highway 138. The descent will wind up the sprinters for the day’s first sprint line in Wrightwood.
After the San Gabriels the riders will enter the San Bernadino National Forest for the final 7,000 feet of climbing before they reach Big Bear Lake.
The peloton will climb up to the “Rim of the World” Highway as it passes through Crestline and Lake Arrowhead. The day’s final six-mile, 2,100-foot climb will wind through the forest to Lakeview Point.
After reaching the summit about 12 miles from the finish, the racers will descend to Big Bear Lake for a few miles of flat riding, and then a short climb to the Snow Summit ski area, which race organizers are calling the first-ever mountain top finish for the Tour of California.
Leipheimer said he’s never ridden the Big Bear climb. “I have no idea what it’s like, it could be brutal,” he said.
-Steve Frothingham contributed to this report.