The sixth edition of the Tour of California definitely favors climbers. It starts at altitude on the Nevada border, includes one uphill finish midway through and ventures into the San Gabriel Mountains in the penultimate stage. We break down the course with the help of Ted King, a support rider for the Liquigas team who will be riding his fourth Tour of California. King, 28, a New Hampshire native, chronicles life in the peloton with insight and irreverence on his website, www.iamtedking.com.
Sunday, May 15
Stage 1: South Lake Tahoe to North Lake Tahoe, 118.7 miles
A lap and a half around Lake Tahoe, including a detour into Nevada, could be complicated by wintery (high 30s) temperatures and a chance of snow showers. Considerable snow remains on the ground, and the cold, dry air will make hydration a priority. The last few miles feature a climb to 7,200-foot Brockway Summit; a descent in which speeds will be in excess of 50 mph; and a short, sharp incline to the finish.
Ted King: "It's textbook if you're not at altitude, but altitude is going to throw a big wrench into it. Fireworks should go off in the first 30K based on the course, but you're still 100 miles from the finish. The roads are wide open and pretty well protected. The climb at the end is never steep, but after 100 miles at altitude, I don't know what to expect. The descent is technical, and there's a left-hand turn at the end."
Monday, May 16
Stage 2: North Lake Tahoe/Squaw Valley to Sacramento, 133.2 miles
Headwinds are likely to be part of the battering the riders will absorb as they go from 7,000 feet to sea level. An early climb up Donner Pass will be followed by a long descent to pancake-flat roads in the last 40 miles, capped by circuits in downtown Sacramento. The sprinters' teams will have plenty of time to regroup for the finish. It'll be a busy day for domestiques such as King.
King: "Donner Pass felt really long to me -- I kept going around corners and looking up and saying, 'I gotta be over there?' The break will go there. Even if you have perfect weather, there's going to be a huge fluctuation in temperature from the start to the finish."
Tuesday, May 17
Stage 3: Auburn to Modesto, 121.9 miles
The course begins with a descent and continues over gently undulating-to-flat terrain. It'll be the closest thing to a rolling rest day for the overall contenders and will finish with a bunch sprint.
King: "There's nary a climb, and the lead is not going to change."
Wednesday, May 18
Stage 4: Livermore to San Jose, 81.8 miles
Be careful what you ask for. Organizers paid heed to criticism that the climbs in this section of the race came too far from the end to make a difference, so they've set an uphill finish (3.5 miles at an average 10 percent gradient) on the challenging climb up Sierra Road outside San Jose. A breakaway is a certainty at the base of Mount Hamilton, an hors categorie climb that comes 50 miles into this short but difficult stage.
King: "This is the stage I'm telling all my San Francisco friends to check out. Sierra is a beast. The crowds should be great, and it'll be mano-a-mano."
Thursday, May 19
Stage 5: Seaside to Paso Robles, 135.1 miles
Part of the course for this classic transition stage had to be moved inland when rock slides and mudslides damaged sections of Highway 1. Riders won't miss the coastal winds.
King: "The climbs are basically Cat. 4s, and they're short enough so that you won't see a change in the GC [overall classification]. The GC guys will be holding back because of the next two stages. Look for a break to go and probably stay away. A punchy rider should prevail."
Friday, May 20
Stage 6: Solvang time trial, 15 miles
After a one-year absence, the ToC time trial moves back to the familiar race venue used from 2007 to '09, a scenic loop through "Sideways" wine country in an area where many U.S. teams have trained in the past. Some of the top women in the world will race on the same course in an invitational event before the men hit the road.
King: "The GC should be pretty well shaken out by now, and there will be 10, maybe 20 guys going all out here. Of the younger guys, [BMC's] Taylor Phinney will do a good one. Tejay Van Garderen is a dark horse, but he's going to surprise a lot of people."
Saturday, May 21
Stage 7: Claremont to Mt. Baldy, 74.9 miles
The race should be decided in this queen stage in which the ToC peloton will hike up Mount Baldy for the first time. The start is no picnic, either, as riders will literally start climbing from jump. We asked longtime road cyclist and current cyclocross specialist Tim Johnson to describe the finish, since he just rode it last week in a L'Etape event open to amateurs and pros.
Tim Johnson: "It's one of the toughest climbs I've seen in a domestic race. I'd compare it to Brasstown Bald [in northern Georgia]. It's not quite as steep, but Brasstown is in the woods, there are tons of people by the side of the road and you know you're going to get there if you just keep grinding it out. This is very exposed and south-facing and could be hot. The road surface is not good -- there are a couple sections of new asphalt that actually make it hotter, and at the end, it's really rough and scarified. It's hard by itself but especially in combination with the rest of the stage and the fact that it comes at the end of the race."
Sunday, May 22
Stage 8: Santa Clarita to Thousand Oaks, 82.3 miles
Flat terrain yields to canyon roads and then to urban circuits. This isn't likely to be as tense as it was in 2010, when Australia's Michael Rogers, then riding for HTC-Columbia, had to defend a 9-second lead.
King: "Some people will be going for Hail Mary's, but I can't imagine the time gaps are going to be as close as they were last year."