A stage-by-stage breakdown of the 2010 Tour of California, which begins Sunday.
Tim Johnson, a veteran of European and North American road cycling who currently rides for the UnitedHealthcare team, weighs in on the stages. The 32-year-old Massachusetts native has raced in all four editions of the Tour of California to date, but was sidelined this spring by ankle surgery.
Stage 1, Nevada City to Sacramento, 104.3 miles: Unlike previous editions of the race, the 2010 Tour of California opens with a road stage rather than a time trial. The course begins at an altitude of 3,000 feet and ambles over the foothills down to sea level, giving the sprint teams lots of time to set up. The finish features three laps around the State capitol.
Tim Johnson's take: "A breakaway is guaranteed, but one of the larger sprint teams will pull things back together. You'll have an entire peloton of fresh, motivated riders."
Stage 2, Davis to Santa Rosa, 110.1 miles: There are a couple of climbs the sprinters won't like, and descents that could be tricky if there's bad weather or nervousness in the bunch, but the last climb, Trinity Grade, comes too far from the finish to be decisive. No circuits in Santa Rosa this time.
Johnson's take: "A repeat of the first stage."
Stage 3, San Francisco to Santa Cruz, 113.3 miles: The picturesque route starts in Ocean Beach and rolls along potentially windblown stretches of Highway 1. Three-time champion Levi Leipheimer opened up a small gap on the other overall contenders heading up Bonny Doon Road toward Santa Cruz in the rain on this stage last year and never relinquished his lead.
Johnson's take: "I don't think this is going to be a big day for the GC [general classification, or overall standings]. A consolidation, maybe. You're going to see a lot of guys and teams desperate to show something and go for the stage win."
Stage 4, San Jose to Modesto, 121.5 miles: Riders will warm up for a long day in the saddle by climbing to 1,900 feet on Sierra Road. The course heads east on winding roads that are tricky and technical, but the flat, straightforward run-in to circuits in Modesto should enable the main pack to regroup for a sprint finish.
Johnson's take: "Last year, it was raining hard and Sierra Road caused more anxiety than an entire normal race in the States. The descent was crazy. It could spook the majority because it's so difficult. But there's plenty of time to get back together."
Stage 5, Visalia to Bakersfield, 121.5 miles: This stage profile looks roughly like a camel's back, with one big hump in the middle and a short but nasty little 10 percent hill that's part of the finishing circuits. Looks like prime territory for a breakaway winner, as many overall contenders will be keeping their powder dry for the next day.
Johnson's take: "This is a sleeper, a great stage for an opportunist. It's long enough that it's going to be tough to control if any team that's not RadioShack has the lead. The sprint teams could be tapped out by now."
Stage 6, Palmdale to Big Bear Lake, 135.3 miles: This much-anticipated stage in the San Gabriel mountains had to be revamped after winter storms washed out part of the original route, but it's no less challenging and perhaps a little more. There are seven climbs and the peloton will spend a good amount of time at or above a mile high. Yet the mountaintop finish does flatten out, which could mean time gaps among the leaders could be relatively small.
Johnson's take: "To say this is a queen stage is an understatement. You can't use much of your team [to help until the end] -- three guys maybe. A lot will be up to one person. But if you have a lead, all you'll have to do is react."
Stage 7, Los Angeles, 20.9 miles (individual time trial): In a radical shift from the traditional race against the clock on the quaint, bucolic roads around the faux-Danish enclave of Solvang, organizers are sending the riders on an urban excursion that will salute many of Los Angeles' iconic spots. Chances are that the overall lead will be very much in contention and podium candidates will be seeking to extend small margins.
Johnson's take: "The [time] differences won't be that big."
Stage 8, Thousand Oaks/Westlake Village/Agoura Hills circuit race, 83.5 miles: It's fair to call the climbs on this course "moderate," but this is not your father's final-day parade. The narrow, sinuous roads that meander around the canyons above Malibu could be perilous for top riders and teams under pressure for four laps.
Johnson's take: "This will be an anxiety-creator for whoever's in the lead. The profile is misleading because the roads are so technical."
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.