Tour of California takes on a whole new direction 

click to enlarge The Tour of California is receiving a major facelift this year. - DOUG PENSINGER/2012 GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO
  • Doug Pensinger/2012 Getty Images file photo
  • The Tour of California is receiving a major facelift this year.

America’s most prestigious cycling event is receiving a major facelift this year and it promises to be the most challenging race in the state’s history.

The eighth Amgen Tour of California is getting underway in Escondido today, launching eight days of racing that will conclude in Santa Rosa on May 19. For the first time, the race is running south to north and its three mountain-top finishes will surely push the limits of the world’s top cyclists.

“This is the most dynamic and dramatic change we’ve ever presented,” race director Jim Birrell said. “The composition of the eight days this year will really present the riders with a lot more challenges.”

This year, the race is going to kick off in Southern California for the first time and Birrell said organizers chose Escondido because it turned out the biggest crowds in the tour’s history, more than 40,000 people, when it hosted the final stage in 2009.

“It’s electrifying,” Birrell said. “Fans were already congregating around the hotel three days out.”

By flipping the starting point, the tour is incorporating new geographical locations into the race, including the Temecula Valley, the San Jacinto Mountains and the Coachella Valley. The race’s second stage introduces an entirely new course to the tour, kicking off in Murrieta and crossing through Rancho Mirage, Cathedral City and Palm Desert before a 1,880-foot climb in 3.8 miles wraps things up on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway parking lot.

“That climb into Palm Springs for the finish is going to be decisive,” Birrell said. “It would not surprise any of us to see a lead change after Day One because of that final approach to the finish line.”

From there, competitors will cycle from Palmdale to Santa Clarita to Santa Barbara to Avila Beach before winding up to San Jose for the Stage 6 individual time trial, which features the most challenging time trial finish in the history of the tour. In the stage’s last three kilometers, riders will climb 1,000 feet up Metcalf Road with several pitches on a grade of 10 percent or more.

It won’t get any easier the next day when racers set off in Livermore to attack Mount Diablo. The 92-mile route twists through bucolic farm landscapes before wrapping up in the Mount Diablo summit parking lot. Organizers are expecting record crowds on Mount Diablo and Birrell said the stage will likely determine who goes on to win the tour.

“You’ll exhaust everything to get to that moment of truth on Friday [Stage 6] and then you have to come back and defend it on Saturday [Stage 7] on the queen stage,” he said. “It will be won or lost on Diablo.”   

The City will play host to the eighth and final stage on the same day as Bay to Breakers. The course launches at Marina Green, crosses the Golden Gate Bridge and winds through Pt. Reyes National Seashore before finishing up in downtown Santa Rosa.

“This is probably the most iconic stage of this year’s tour,” Dirrell said. “And Santa Rosa is one of the birthplaces of road racing in the U.S. So many of the legends of our sport either lived there or certainly trained there. To have the overall finish there is extremely exciting.”

Fans who can’t make it out to the stages will be able to track the race in real time on the Tour of California website or watch live coverage on NBC Sports Network.

pgackle@sfexaminer.com

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Paul Gackle

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