Three-time Amgen Tour of California champion Levi Leipheimer had some bad news and good news Thursday morning. The bad news was that for the first time in the event’s history it won’t visit his hometown of Santa Rosa in 2011. The good news is twofold: the time trial returns to Solvang, where Leipheimer was unbeaten for three years (2007-09), and there will be a mountaintop finish on the penultimate day at Mt. Baldy — something the Team RadioShack rider has been pitching to the organizers year after year.
This will be the sixth edition of America’s greatest stage race, and it’s certainly the toughest and most spectacular one yet. In unveiling the May 15-22 stage race route, Andrew Messick, president of AEG Sports, the event owner, told VeloNews, “We’ve got three stages that are real sprinter stages, two stages that are climber stages, the time trial obviously, and then two stages where a good all-arounder should do very well.”
The first of those all-around stages comes the very first day, when the California tour sets off from South Lake Tahoe, at an elevation of 6,260 feet. Stage 1 will circumnavigate Lake Tahoe one and a half times (passing through about 50km of Nevada on the first loop) before heading to an uphill finish in Northstar-at-Tahoe resort. That summit finish resembles ones recently selected for opening stages at the Tour de France: the climb to Plumelec in 2008 and next year’s stage 1 to the Mont des Alouettes.
2011 Amgen Tour of California
Sunday, May 15 Stage 1: South Lake Tahoe to Northstar-at-Tahoe
Monday, May 16 Stage 2: Squaw Valley to Sacramento
Tuesday, May 17 Stage 3: Auburn to Modesto
Wednesday, May 18 Stage 4: Livermore to San Jose
Thursday, May 19 Stage 5: Seaside to Paso Robles
Friday, May 20 Stage 6: Solvang TT
Saturday, May 21 Stage 7: Claremont to Mt. Baldy
Sunday, May 22 Stage 8: Santa Clarita to Thousand Oaks
The resemblance to Tour stages is not a coincidence because event owner AEG is now in the second year of a promotional agreement with Tour organizer ASO.
“It’s been an extremely helpful partnership for us.” Messick said. “We sent a large delegation of our team to the Tour de France this past summer to see how they run and manage the race from an operational, management and broadcast perspective.”
Messick was particularly enthusiastic about the improvements ASO made last year to his event’s television coverage, especially the live feed. “Practically, the job that they did was extraordinary,” he said. “I don’t think California has ever looked better than it did in the eight days of the Amgen Tour of California thanks to the expertise and skills of the ASO team.
“We had unprecedented distribution internationally — live in more than 90 countries, and distributed in highlights and recaps to some 200 countries and territories. And we had an increase in our international coverage and revenue by a factor more than five.
“So we have a fantastic partner who’s helping us create a better race, who’s making our race look beautiful on television, and who is helping us to make money on international [coverage] and distribute our race broadly; that’s a pretty powerful partnership from our perspective.”
Messick added, “Our core array of sponsors are all continuing in 2011, and probably within the next 30 days we’ll announce all of our extended television agreements and an extension of our agreement with ASO.”
As for the status of the 2011 edition, Messick said, “We stay at a UCI 2.HC race for 2011, so it’s our intention to move up to ProTour in 2012. We’re waiting to see which riders end up where before we start deciding which teams we’re inviting for next year. We expect once again we’ll have an exceptionally strong field.”
With its new dates six weeks before the start of the Tour de France, the Amgen Tour should again attract riders gearing up for the world’s biggest race. The challenging opening stage around Lake Tahoe sets the tone for a course that’s worthy of the world’s top racers.
The omission of Santa Rosa means there will be no repeat of the past two years’ rain-affected stage through the hills of the Wine Country. Instead, after sprinter stages to Sacramento and Modesto, the race heads west for a climber’s stage into San Jose — the only city to figure in every edition of the Tour of California — followed by a return to the always-spectacular coastal stage through Big Sur.
Next up is the Solvang time trial, on a longer course than before, that’s followed by a 250km-long transfer to the Los Angeles area for the final weekend. As opposed to this year’s high-altitude stage finish at Big Bear Lake, which ended in a group sprint, the climb to Mt. Baldy at 6,500 feet will be the most difficult stage in the event’s history. And being only a short drive from downtown LA it should draw a massive crowd. Messick’s hoping it will be California’s L’Alpe d’Huez.
That mountaintop finish will almost certainly decide the outcome pf the 2011 Amgen Tour — and Leipheimer is already hoping that he’ll regain the title he lost to Michael Rogers of HTC-Columbia this year. The final stage on May 22 will arrive in the home of Amgen, the title sponsor of every edition to date.
Stage 1: South Lake Tahoe to Northstar-at-Tahoe
This promises to be a spectacular opening stage of almost 200km, circling Lake Tahoe in a clockwise direction one and a half times before heading to an uphill finish at Northstar. The hilly roads around 7,000 feet elevation will favor breakaways, though an all-arounder like Peter Sagan could take a reduced field sprint.
Messick: “It’s not a mountain but a substantially uphill finish to Northstar.”
Stage 2: Squaw Valley to Sacramento
Starting in the High Sierra and finishing on the plains, this mostly downhill stage longer than 200km will surely end in a field sprint in the California capital, where Tom Boonen and Mark Cavendish have taken previous wins.
Messick: “We’ve got three stages that are real sprinter stages. This is the first; the others are stages 3 and 8.”
Stage 3: Auburn to Modesto
The sprinters are favored to win again, but after some early climbs in the Sierra foothills a long flat run-into Modesto across the Central Valley is likely to be subject to strong crosswinds giving a strong team the chance to split the peloton into echelons. Thor Hushovd and Francesco Chicchi have both won field sprints here.
Stage 4: Livermore to San Jose
With perennial stage town San Jose hosting a finish after two years as a start, a finale through the hills either to the west or east of the city is likely, especially as the start in Livermore is only 50km away. When earlier stages headed over the ultra-steep Sierra Road before looping back to the finish, George Hincapie, Jens Voigt and Robert Gesink scored victories from small breakaway groups.
Messick: “This is a climber stage where we’re looking at a range of finishing possibilities into San Jose, but we’re not ready to talk about them yet.”
Stage 5: Seaside to Paso Robles
Likely to be the longest stage, it will head south along the hilly Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur before crossing the coastal range to the finish, which should draw a huge crowd on the eve of the Paso Robles Wine Festival. In the only previous finish here, in 2009, Cavendish won a mass sprint — but that stage came from the east over the flat Central Valley. When nearby San Luis Obispo hosted the finish of the PCH stage, solo breakaway Dominique Rollin held off the peloton in 2008 after earlier bunch sprints won by JJ Haedo and Paolo Bettini.
Messick: “Highway 1 will feature prominently in this race, and we’ve got a few innovative ideas about how to get across from Highway 1 to the finish in Paso Robles.”
Stage 6: Solvang time trial
Levi Leipheimer scored a hat-trick of wins in the Solvang time-trial stage 2007-09, and he’ll get a chance at a fourth success next year — but on an extended version of the previous 24km course, which looped north of the town through the wineries if the Santa Ynez Valley. The stage will be a principal part of the City of Solvang’s centennial celebrations.
Messick: “We’re expanding the amateur time trial, which will be in Solvang the morning of the race; it will be a completely authentic race experience with UCI officials, closed course, moto escort for each rider, same timing system, same marshals, everything. You can see how good you are relative to the best guys in the world.”
Stage 7: Claremont to Mt Baldy
From the start in Claremont, the riders will be able to see the finish some 6,000 feet above them in the San Gabriel Mountains. The final route hasn’t been set, but it will feature the locally iconic climbs of Glendora Mountain Road and Glendora Ridge Road, before heading up to the Baldy ski area, which features 11-percent grades in the final 5km. The first true mountaintop finish in the race’s six-year history should give rise to a true Tour de France atmosphere.
Messick: “We’ll have a mass participation ride on the route of the Baldy stage, a couple of week before, to give people the taste of how hard it is to race in the pro peloton.”
Stage 8: Santa Clarita to Thousand Oaks
This final stage will likely include the steep climbs of Balcom Canyon and Mulholland Drive, but the probable finishing loops at the Amgen corporate campus in Thousand Oaks favors the peloton coming together for a mass sprint. When the penultimate stage finished here in 2006, German sprinter Olaf Pollack took the win.